Susan d’Arcy, Spa Editor of The Sunday Times
You probably think spas are safe havens; places specifically designed to escape the stresses and strains of modern-day life. The truth is, for a growing band of people, that spas are effectively no-go areas.
I met one such person at a dinner party last year. A smart professional in her early forties; she told me how, after completing breast cancer treatment, she had decided to celebrate with a day at a fancy hotel spa. It wasn’t until she was in her bathrobe, filling in her consultation form that she was asked for her medical history. Her therapist frowned down at her completed paperwork. There was some embarrassed whispering amongst the reception staff, followed by a phone call. Then the manager appeared and explained, rather awkwardly, that spa treatments can spread cancer so she would have to leave, but they would be happy to give her a full refund.
My dinner companion described how she had assured the manager that was there was absolutely no risk and she would happily sign a waiver to say so. The manager smiled frostily, suggested she didn’t understand the issues and asked her to leave again, this time less politely. The thing is, my dinner companion is a consultant oncologist. She might just know a tad more about “the issues” than someone with a NVQ in beauty.
I was horrified by the story and asked if she had complained to the hotel’s general manager? She hadn’t. Had she taken it up with a trade association? She hadn’t. She told me she had just wanted to forget an encounter that was frustrating, humiliating and, mainly, deeply upsetting. Obviously, her attitude was entirely understandable but it made me wonder how commonplace her experience was. I started digging and soon discovered that, sadly, hers was far from an isolated incident. In fact, a recent survey found that 97% of UK spas and salons would refuse to treat someone with cancer.
I could scarcely believe it. In fact, I almost didn’t believe it, but the anecdotal evidence of Abi Wright, founder of spabreaks.com – one of the UK’s leading wellbeing operators – backed up the shocking statistic. Her team takes calls every day from women who have been turned away after ticking the box about chemotherapy. Far from having some quality me-time – often arranged as a treat by family or friends – they are left feeling distressed and alienated. Surely those working in the wellness industry are naturally caring? If so, why are spas behaving so badly?
Incredibly, it seems the mainstream industry’s attitude to cancer is largely based on an urban myth. Michelle Hammond, founder of the Spa Business School, which commissioned the study, explains: “At college, therapists are told that massage can spread cancer so they are petrified of causing harm. Yet we could not find one body of evidence that suggested a negative response to complementary therapies, though many spoke of their emotional and spiritual benefits. In fact, many oncologists encourage patients to have massage to cope better with clinical treatment.”
Macmillan Cancer Support backs up her stance. Its website says: “Massage is often offered as part of cancer care in cancer centres, hospices, community health services and some GP surgeries. Some studies of people with cancer suggest massage reduced symptoms of pain, nausea, anxiety, depression and fatigue.” Despite this, at the current time, most British spas will only honour appointments for those officially in remission. Some will accept patients who present a doctor’s note (that’s if the guest knew to organise one in advance) but most operate a blanket ban.
Hammond argues that therapies simply need to be adapted, for example, to avoid areas sensitive after surgery. “There may be an argument for avoiding more intense styles of massage such as deep tissue, and hot tubs because of increased risk of infection,” she adds, “but spas just need to use commonsense.”
As the NHS estimates that one in three Britons will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime and since a day of pampering is – often literally – just what the doctor ordered, it’s encouraging to note that things are finally changing. Spabreaks.com has launched dedicated Recovery Retreats, though so far only 50 of its 750 properties worldwide have joined its initiative, while Spafinder.co.uk – another specialist booking site – has partnered with Wellness for Cancer, to offer advice and training.
Spabreaks.com and prestigious hospitals such as Manchester’s Christie NHS Foundation Trust – one of the largest cancer treatment centres in Europe – are also supporting Hammond, who is spearheading a new charity, T.P.O.T (The Power of Touch: tpot.org.uk). T.P.O.T launched earlier this year and aims to reeducate therapists to ensure nobody presenting with the condition is turned away from a UK spa by 2018. It has already chalked up some notable successes, including a partnership with the London College of Beauty.
It’s a start but the hotel industry, both here and abroad, needs to be much more proactive. Hopefully, that 2018 target can become a reality even sooner.