Peg Lopata, Contributing writer
WESTBOROUGH – A woman who knows how to take care of herself is a good bet for someone who knows how to take care of others. So not so surprisingly, Paula Kirk, 58, is a massage therapist.
“I like helping people with their health and wellness,” she said in an interview earlier this year.
She likes taking care of herself too.
“I do a lot to take care of myself,” she explained. “I get massages, acupuncture and chiropractic [work] and I see a therapist for mental health counseling.”
She also likes to birdwatch, walk, take day trips to gardens and the beach. And she likes hiking, being with family, eating out, relaxing at home, watching movies and dancing. Recently she’s been going to the YMCA for strength training and stretching.
Cancer changes everything
Some may not think of these many avenues to choose from to keep the mind and body healthy, but Kirk’s brush with cancer and her mother’s death from cancer has greatly influenced her life.
“My mother’s illness and death greatly influenced my decision to learn more about holistic health and eventually become a Reiki master and licensed massage therapist,” she said. “My work doesn’t cure cancer, of course, but I can help people feel more relaxed and healthy in general.”
“I do integrated ‘bodywork,’” she continued, “–which means a mix of techniques to help release patterns of chronic tension and stress, promoting relaxation, pain relief and greater ease of movement.”
Motivated to help to find answers to why
Kirk’s family’s women have unfortunately seen many cases of breast cancer. Three generations have had breast cancer diagnoses, including a niece only 23 years old. All this has happened without a clear genetic link, according to Kirk.
Kirk herself was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer at 46. Both she and her niece are healthy now.
Kirk thought about herself and all these women in her family having breast cancer and wanted to support work that funded research asking why breast cancer is found where there’s no genetic link. That led her into contributing to the efforts of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC).
“I agree with MBCC’s assertion that cancer is big business and breast cancer ‘awareness’ is promoted by corporations that sell products that may cause breast and other cancers,” Kirk said. “I support MBCC’s mission to fund research into environmental causes of breast cancer because they are focusing on prevention and everyday actions we all can take, such as choosing safer household, lawn care [and] bath and body products.
“They also advocate for policy changes such as eliminating PFAS (manmade chemicals) in food packaging,” she continued. “These chemicals are linked to breast cancer, but also other illnesses.”
The understanding massage therapist
In her work as a massage therapist, Kirk carries her own experience with cancer into the massage treatment room. That experience includes a lumpectomy and five years of Tamoxifen, a drug for early-stage breast cancer.
“My experience, and those of my family members and friends, has made me more conscious of all the different types of cancers, treatments, side-effects and lasting physical and emotional effects of treatments any client may be having,” she said. “People who have a cancer history will have lasting changes in their bodies, minds, and spirits.”
Though the physicality of her work is demanding, Kirk is happy to continue giving massages. She considers getting into this occupation her greatest accomplishment –
Indeed, Kirk started her new career more than 20 years ago, moving on from a 12-year, nine-to-five gig as an inside sales representative at a Worcester-based industrial company.
It’s not easy to take such a leap. But Kirk is not one to take things easy. She wants to continue learning and, in fact, said she may be looking to train in oncology massage.
A changed life
Having breast cancer herself has been truly a life-changing experience for Kirk. She’s learned that it’s survivable and, in many cases, preventable.
“I’ve gained awareness that many people have survived many different cancers and it has affected their bodies, minds and spirits,” she said. “And, there are lots of actions we can take to stay healthy.”
Learn more about the MBCC here: mbcc.org.