Meaning Well

The Japanese-style oasis advertises its Stress Management Program for Women with Cancer via flyers posted in doctors’ offices and treatment centers.

Thousand Waves Spa for Women
Chicago, IL

When Jennie Gunnerson bought Thousand Waves Spa in 2006, she already knew what was most special about the spa: its program to provide free support to women with cancer. Conceived by the original owner in 1991, the program began as a way for women dealing with this serious medical issue to receive touch in a positive way and reap the psychological benefits of relaxation to help counteract doctor’s visits, body changes and often-unpleasant treatments to control the disease.

The program, which is available three days per week, allows women who have received a cancer diagnosis, are in treatment or have finished treatment within the past year, to use the spa’s facilities (which otherwise requires a $20 fee) up to five times for free, and to receive five free massages. Women typically hear about the program through doctors, support groups or general word of mouth, then call the day spa to learn more. In turn, spa staff members are prepared to request information from the potential guest and ultimately have the client complete a detailed intake and inform her doctor.

During appointments, these clients can enjoy the spa’s eucalyptus steam room, sauna, hot tub and relaxation area before getting a massage. Given the positive guest feedback, it isn’t surprising that the program has been in effect for so long.

“So many women go out of their way to express to me how meaningful these services are to them,” relates Gunnerson. “And, because we’re a women-only spa, they’re more comfortable taking off their scarves and wigs and being themselves—it’s a beautiful thing.”

Thousand Waves Spa for Women has dedicated a room for these services only, but little funding is required, as the massage therapists work on a volunteer basis. Gunnerson admits there are more clients than volunteers, and that clients may wait a couple of weeks during busy periods, but no one is turned away. The spa solicits volunteers not only from current staff, who come in to help on days off, but also from massage therapy schools and clients who are massage therapists looking for volunteer opportunities. And because so many people have been directly or indirectly touched by cancer, they often welcome the chance to do their part.

Gunnerson would love to receive a grant to help attract more volunteers, but for now, this small spa business is creating a big difference in the lives of others. “To see the effect of what we do is so touching,” she reflects. “I see the difference it makes in both clients and the therapists who are volunteering. It’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever been involved in.”