People look up to Steve Gordon, and not just because of his commanding height. He has turned part of his second career – massage – into a service for cancer patients, the Hand to Heart project, which sends massage therapists on home visits to cancer patients. Though more acquainted with dying than most people, he radiates a serene calm that perhaps grows from spending so much time thinking about and dealing with death and our journey to it.

“All I ask is that you not be afraid,” the woman from his massage class said to Steve, as they discussed practicing on each other. He was taken aback; it had not entered his mind to be afraid of someone with life-threatening illness like the recurrence of aggressive breast cancer she had discovered as the class began. But cancer patients were often told, “I can’t give you a massage – you have cancer.” Schools taught that the stimulation of massage might encourage cancer cells to detach and relocate. “It’s using science to show 2 + 2 = 9,” exclaims Steve.

An Early Seed

Those who have read the Valley News for years may recognize Steve’s name. Over 25 years, he was a reporter and editor of the Sunday edition. His experiences of massage, as an occasional practice subject for college friends from the nursing school at Keene State in the ’70s, lived in his memory and eventually took him from the paper.

Around the turn of the millennium Steve began a course in massage at [then] New Hampshire Technical College in Claremont while he was still working full time at the Valley News. “I’d leave the newsroom and drive a half hour,” for a 5-hour course and practice, he recalls. “It was like getting on a rocket ship to another planet.”

The formal training was just the beginning. “It’s like everything else: it’s not like you really know it when you graduate college,” Steve says. “After graduation you begin relearning and rebuilding what you know.” He hadn’t begun the training with the intent of going into oncology massage, but experiences led him to more and more involvement with it.

Steve spent some of his internship time at DHMC, supervised by Briane Pinkson, coordinator of healing arts. “The only place in the hospital we don’t go is the emergency room, and the operating room,” she says. She supervises a team of four part-time massage therapists who, for example, give short foot massages to people receiving chemotherapy infusions. The massage and the feeling of being cared for and about can lower the patient’s level of tension.

Taking It on the Road

In addition to his massage practice, Steve was giving massages at DHMC’s cancer center once a week, a service that was then paid for as treatment, since its benefits of pain relief and physical and emotional relaxation were well known. Nurses reported that patients slept better and needed less pain medication. Steve began to think of the patients who were not in the hospital, released to home awaiting another round of treatment, or hospice care. Many couldn’t afford to have a massage therapist come to them. The idea of Hand to Heart was born.

With advice from his friend Leo McKenna, an expert businessman with strong Dartmouth ties, Steve founded Hand to Heart in 2007. The small nonprofit provides a stipend to a handful of massage therapists who visit patients at home. It can be a strenuous task, since it often means carrying a portable yet heavy massage table into clients’ houses. “The whole idea is to work with a range of people,” says Steve. “It’s not a type of hospice, something just for people with terminal disease.” Most referrals come from DHMC, visiting nurse and hospice agencies, friends, or churches. Patients must live within a certain area and have “beyond minimal” cancer. So recovery can mean loss of the massage service.

Though the number can change suddenly, Steve is currently working with about 15 clients. He is the principle therapist with Hand to Heart, now in its tenth year, with Briane being the other primary massage provider.

Relatives of clients experience the release massage brings to their family. A client’s sister said, “The massage therapist… is encouraging, enabling and healing. He has the gift of understanding and contemplating the scary process of dying. He does not judge, criticize or promise.” Briane agrees wholeheartedly, and notes that home visits bring a richer connection for the therapist also. “Family members really appreciate it – they’re so stressed, grieving – they don’t have the psychic energy themselves. The body relaxes… It’s really intimate, kind of sacred. Especially at the end of life, it’s more about soothing, calming. Like laying on of hands.”