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Moments of Breathing: An Interview with Felicia Newsome

Today, this Valentine’s Day 2013, we share with you a story of finding bliss in every day, the sustaining gift of taking time for oneself, and abundance that can’t be bought (take that, Hallmark!). After a lengthy and chaotic career behind-the-scenes in the music industry, Studio 26 massage therapist Felicia Newsome found herself suddenly crying and eating in Italy - and in an Eat Pray Love-esque moment of transformation, left the industry for good. Upon her return to New York, Felicia followed her new-found inner quiet and breath to make the decisions which have led her to become a massage therapist specializing in oncology patients, and to sit and share her experiences in this particular field with us here at Studio 26. By Aya Sato

You worked in the music industry for many years. What prompted your jump to massage therapy?

Honestly, the music industry swallows people up. You can get lost in the excitement of it. For eighteen years I worked in the industry behind the scenes, and while it was great, and I was getting paid really well, I was getting swallowed up. Lots of people I know, lots of women I know in the music industry, or any entertainment field, are usually not taking time for themselves. Even when they think they are, and they’re doing all these spa things, but with other people from the industry – you get caught up in that world. It’s easy to do these “fabulous” things, but then “fabulous” has nothing to do with real life – unless you’re a star and that’s your life! So I just got burnt out. I was tired all the time, I didn’t feel sick but I didn’t feel well. One day I woke up and I said, “OK, I’m done.” I loved what I did, I was good at it, but I was done.

So you were done - and then you had a desire to want to heal others? Through massage therapy?

No. No desires, no epiphanies! I went to Europe. The last day I worked in the recording studio, the very next day I was on a flight to Amsterdam. Originally I was going for a couple weeks, but when I got there I didn’t have a plan, so I just decided to stay and travel. I went to France, Spain, and all these different places. I wound up in Italy and stayed for a few months, just travelling around ate a lot of really good food. I cried a lot, because I was burnt out and overwhelmed, and felt I had worked eighteen years in this field and had nothing to show for it. So I had some money, sure, but what did I have to show that was real, for eighteen years? I didn’t have a plan for what the next thing was going to be.

In Italy I watched people. I watched the way they worked and the way they lived. It was profound to me, that in the middle of the day, people would stop everything, close down shops and go have lunch with their friends and families for a few hours, then maybe go sleep for an hour and then come back to work and work some more! They were not stressed, not overweight - they had this balance that was unfamiliar to me, which is what made me stay. I ate a whole lot of food, but I lost about 60 pounds, probably because it was real food. All the crying probably had something to do with it. I always get stumped for words, because there were no words for me at that time. At one point I started to understand Italian but really there was so much non-verbal communication - an amazing energy exchange. I could communicate without ever opening my mouth. You know, Italians are very touchy feely! They love to touch. I was not, in the music industry. It became a different way to look at the world. I’m not stupid, but when you’re so ingrained in some thing for such a long time you kind of forget what everything else is like! That was my world, literally; I ate it, drank it slept it, 24 hours a day.

When I came home, I thought to myself, “What is my exit plan? What the hell am I going to do now?” Life in the music industry was too crazy and chaotic to actually take deep breaths and listen to myself breathe - that only really happened for me in Italy. I remember sitting in my living room and just breathing, and some very small, quiet voice said, “Check out massage school” Literally two days later there was an open house at the Swedish Institute and I went, and before it was over I said “I’m gonna write you a check, and I need to be in this class that starts in two weeks!” I knew I needed to commit then and there. I somehow got everything together to make it to that first class. So that was my transition.

You work (or have worked) at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and NYU Clinical Cancer Center as a massage therapist. How did you get involved in doing bodywork for cancer patients, and what inspired you?

You’re looking for epiphanies! It doesn’t happen like that for me. It’s always the small voices! Its one small quiet voice and it only say it once! So I have to pay attention! Prior to working at Sloan Kettering I was working at some of the top spas and the top hotels in New York. I was good at what I did I was getting paid a lot of money and I got huge tips! Basically, I already knew how to deal with stars and big personalities, but I realized I was not necessarily enjoying the process because the shift was not complete. I was dealing with the same personalities! Though I didn’t mind it from this different perspective, I started thinking to myself “I know I love what I do but I can no longer do it in this capacity”. So in one of my quiet times I heard “You should look into working with oncology patients or hospice patients” As I was thinking about how to go forward with this, days later someone I graduated with called me and said “Would you consider working with cancer patients?” and I’m like “Sure!”

Wow! Just like your initial transition! You were in tune with something.

Yes! I got the job a few weeks later at Sloan Kettering (Felicia was there 2005-2011) While I was there, someone started a new program I was asked to participate in at NYU (Clinical Cancer Center) where people were being massaged while they were being infused with their chemotherapy. I was doing pieces of bodywork, hands and feet, neck and shoulders. I realized I liked that better, or not better - it was more fulfilling, in a way. When you’re getting chemo, the process of having to get your test results, your blood, everything, it’s crazy. It’s stressful, you don’t even know if you’re going to get your treatment that day. Then when you’re getting it, you’re sitting there for four hours at least. What I realized is, it makes a major difference for someone under this stress, to have someone pay attention to them, for even five seconds, in a capacity where they’re not being hurt or injected. There’s a quiet exchange that happens between the patient and myself.

What kinds of things do you think you’ve learned that you wouldn’t have known about the body working in this particular field?

How amazing it is to be able to bounce back. There’s that saying “Physician heal thyself” – when you think about it’s not really talking about physicians specifically it’s talking about you. There are things that your body can do on its own to heal itself. It doesn’t need your brain. But then there are certain things that you can choose to do – choose to eat well, choose to exercise, if you have the ability, you can make these choices and these choices are things that help your body bounce back, too.

I’ve seen people on the brink of death, going through chemo. It’s poison that gets pumped through you. Then radiation – I’ve seen people at the brink, and their spirit is not broken! After the initial effects of treatment when those immediate threats of disease are being taken out of the equation, then the body is recognizes, “Oh we don’t have to fight that – now we are going to find out what our new normal is and how we’ve going to get there, and we can take care of it” The body has an amazing way of figuring it out, without your emotions or your intellect.

Having trained in a variety of massage styles, how do you design your practice? Is it very different for cancer clients and non-cancer clients?

I don’t know that it’s different. For most of the people that come to me there are two things they are getting. One is my energy, and the other is my technical skill. All the things I’ve learned, I do in one massage, anything in my arsenal, or my medicine bag. But the difference is if you’re in chemo, and you tell me you want deep tissue, I’m only going to go so deep!

Could you talk about some of the different goals you work towards with your oncology clients?

They all have different goals. Most just want to feel better. They want to feel normal again. A lot of what I do is helping them to recognize that their normal is going to be new and if you’re in treatment your normal is always changing. When it gets to the point where you stop or have a break in treatment, your normal baseline changes again. Normally people find me when they’re in the process of treatment. They need someone who is not a doctor, who gets it, and can remind them that their baseline of normal is going to change, and that’s OK, and to encourage them to report the changes to doctors and people around you.

So you’re helping them find their flow within these intensive treatments and changes.

Yes, I’m sort of like an oncology coach!

In what way does your own wellbeing play into providing care for people with illnesses? Have you struggled with this balance at any point, or does it come easily to you?

I think because I’m dealing mostly with people who are going through a healing process, it makes me cognizant of my eating habits, my moving habits, my personal habits, but it also makes me remember that thing that was so impressive to me about Italy. Spending time with family, being in love when I’m in love, those magical moments of just breathing and listening to that small voice. It makes them bigger and it makes them carry more weight. I think it makes me more balanced!

So working with this kind of patient puts more emphasis on those positive moments?

For me, its does! But when I’m talking to my patients, we’re not always talking about their lives; we’re talking about mine too. It’s a conversation always, it’s a reminder to them, “This what you want to get back to.” Which is why I love Studio 26. I realized this is a good place because my clients, some of whom are in chemotherapy, some who are not, come and this (gestures to training floor) is a reminder to them. “This is what you want to get back to, you may not feel like it today, but that’s ok keep coming back and this energy is going to start rubbing off on you. This is your reminder. This is where you want to be!”

As soon as I walked in I felt like I belonged – and the eco-thing - it all just works, it really makes sense. It also makes sense from that other perspective which is, things don’t have to be complicated to make a major difference. They can be simple. Its what I brought back from Italy. Life does not have to be complicated to have abundance and prosperity. It’s about vitality, life, health. From a certain perspective, wealth is not about finances – it’s all these other things, your family, and your friends, being full! That’s why I like it here; I can remind my clients (and I call them clients, not patients, because that’s what they are for me) “Hey - there’s this other side of health that you can get to!”