Apr 16, 2020 11:00 AM

Most nurses don’t do much sitting while they’re on the job. That’s partly why Amy Fenton, internal medicine nurse at University of Utah Hospital, was so excited to sit down one day in mid-April of 2019—for a chair massage, no less. It was the very first day of Thrive at the Bedside, an employee program to support health and wellness.

Two weeks later, Amy found herself sitting in a different chair—one in the chemotherapy infusion clinic at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). It was that massage, and Amy’s crucial follow-through, that led to an early diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Leading up to the chair massage, I had no symptoms,” Amy says. “I had a little shortness of breath, but I thought that was due to my asthma.”

During her session, massage therapist Ben Smith discovered something unusual in her neck and upper back near the lymph node area.

“It wasn’t just one lump,” Ben says. “It was a series of lumps along a line. It’s funny, I can remember what I feel better than I can remember people’s names or faces. It was along the left side of the neck.”

Ben, a full-time massage therapist at HCI, was helping launch Thrive at the Bedside that day. He didn’t think Amy’s lumps felt like muscle.

“It was really different from what I usually feel,” Ben says. “I decided to let her know.”

“He told me I might want to have this checked out further,” Amy says.

Massage therapists never want to startle their clients, Ben says, but they can be the ones to notice something unusual.

“We sometimes see and feel things on people’s bodies that they don’t get a chance to notice otherwise,” Ben says. “We can bring it to their attention.”

Amy was leaving soon for a family vacation, and when she saw her father, a physician, she asked him to take a look. He suggested a second opinion. By then, Amy’s nurse senses had fully kicked in. Something didn’t feel right. She made an appointment.

“I was diagnosed about ten days after the massage,” Amy says. “I started chemo four days later.”

Amy’s diagnosis was stage II Hodgkin lymphoma. She explains this type of cancer moves fast and is often not found until a later stage. Generally, cancer treatment is more effective when the disease is found at an early stage.

“Everyone said, ‘I can’t believe that massage happened at that time.’ [The cancer had progressed] enough to feel it but not too far along in my diagnosis,” Amy says. “That timing—it just gives me goosebumps.”

Over the next six months, Amy had 12 rounds of chemotherapy at HCI. Tests at that point showed no signs of cancer.

“The good thing about Hodgkin lymphoma is that it has a really low recurrence rate,” Amy says. “So that’s less of a mental barrier, because with cancer you’re always worried about it coming back. But there’s very little chance of this cancer coming back.”

When Amy looks back on her time at HCI, she remembers the stresses and challenges, but she also remembers the support.

“It was very scary and stressful having cancer,” Amy says. “But HCI is incredible. The facility is amazing and they provide so many resources to help with the non-medical parts of a diagnosis: family support, different types of therapy, support groups, activities. They just have a whole system built to help the patient and their family.”

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