Spa Retreats For People With Cancer July 02, 2015 09:04

Although a spa seems like the perfect place for someone recovering from serious illness, most are very wary of taking bookings from people who have been treated for cancer. Thankfully a handful have changed their approach, says Joanna Moorhead

What you need, said my friends as I made my first tentative steps back on to dry land after the stormy seas of cancer treatment, is a break. They were right: and where more appropriate than a spa, an undemanding short holiday with health at its centre? A day of pampering and massages was exactly what the doctor ordered.

But there was a catch. I am the veteran of many spa trips, and on every previous occasion I have breezily ticked a “no” in that tedious questionnaire that precedes your treatment. Recent operations? None. On medication? No. Any history of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy or allergies? No, no, no, no and no.

Only now it’s different. Yes, I have had recent operations; and yes, I am on medication. And yes, sadly I do have a history of cancer. And I know that ticking all those boxes in the waiting room means I’ll be unlikely to be ushered through to the treatment room.

Because spas, on the whole, are scared of people like me. Most do not have therapists trained specifically in how to treat them, and the default position in most spas is to refuse many treatments – massages especially. The fear is that massage can push cancer cells round the body: it’s a nonsense, and in fact my radiotherapy for breast cancer came with a course of massages from a specially-trained Macmillan therapy team. As my therapist there said, massages would hardly be offered as part of an oncology treatment package if there was any danger in it.

Not every spa manager seems to realise this, but the good news is that some spas have started to. About three years ago Abi Wright, founder of, got a call from a “distraught” customer, recently recovered from cancer, who had just been turned away from the reception desk on a spa break having innocently ticked all those cancer and medication and recent operations boxes on the health form.

“I did some research and realised cancer is a bit of a taboo subject at spas; and I phoned a few spas up and said, this is insane,” says Wright. “Spas are ideal places for people to go when they’re going through gruelling cancer treatment or recovering from it, and what the spas need to do is wise up on what’s OK and what’s not OK, and to offer staff who know what they’re talking about rather than some 18-year-old therapist who tells a client, in front of a waiting room full of people, that she couldn’t touch her with a bargepole because she’s ticked the cancer box.”

Several spas around Britain have taken up Wright’s gauntlet, so off I headed to one of them, Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey. Its “recovery retreat” began well –before I even arrived, I received a phone call from one of the therapists who – hurrah! – knew perfectly well that massage isn’t dangerous for someone in my position, and booked me in straightaway for a therapeutic massage with aromatherapy oils (exactly the same treatment I enjoyed at the Macmillan centre). I also opted for a reflexology session, which again I’d found relaxing as part of my oncology treatment package.