Interview With Julie Bach, Founder of Spa4thePink

We attended the ISPA Conference in Las Vegas earlier this year and it was here we first learned all about this amazing organization called Spa4thePink, which shares our passionate philosophy that spas are places of healing. We met Julie Bach, founder of Spa4thePink and Executive Director for Wellness for Cancer, and she told us stories about individuals with cancer being turned away from spas because spa providers and therapists didn’t know how to best serve those who had the disease. Spas were afraid they would inadvertently hurt those with cancer, so they turned them away, doing more emotional damage had they just given them a nice relaxing massage in the first place. Julie decided she was going to change all that, and show spa providers that there was a way to properly and compassionately serve people with cancer at their spas.

We felt like we had just met a kindred spirit at our first ISPA Conference, so we were eager to chat more with Julie. We were interested in finding about how the org came about, how spas become “Cancer Aware” and how the work they were doing tied in with Spafinder Wellness 365.  Julie very kindly took the time to sit down with us for an interview.

Can you tell me about how Spa4thePink came about?

I started Spa4thePink after my second session with mindfulness teacher, Felix Lopez. I had lost both parents to cancer, and was having an awful time. Before meeting Felix, I became allergic to my food, got divorced, and was below 100 pounds. Felix taught me to transform this negative energy in to something positive that would steward others in their journey. So it was a shift in energy, was healing for me as well, and it continues to create a ripple effect.

When did you know you had to move from the great idea to starting the org? Was there a lightbulb moment?

It happened when I saw that what I was doing in my own center was not enough for what I was capable of doing. I was under-utilizing my abilities. I always knew that I had a big mission in life. And I knew from a young age that it was in the realm of education, healing, and spirituality. I just did not know what it was or how it was. And when I met my teacher, the lightbulb on the “what” was lit for the first time.

The second lightbulb, the “how”, was lit by talking to a few cancer centers and doctors whom I worked with. I asked them, “How do you see our role -– are we spa?” Unanimously the answer was, “You are ‘mindfulness’.” The first time I heard that I was like “What???” So I googled mindfulness, and this was 4 years ago before this whole mindfulness craze. I learned the origins of the programs in cancer centers being based on Jon Kabat-Zinn who had studied mindfulness, meditation, and yoga with a monk.

This was very interesting for me, because I was studying mindfulness, meditation and yoga at the personal level with Felix Lopez, a former monk. So I saw how I was being led in to my mission without my controlling it or trying to discover it –- it was there in front of me and offered to me. The question was if I was going to step up and make it happen. I have been through some intense trainings since then and I have grown to appreciate, respect, and step into the role that my non-profit was really going to offer, and in the manner in which the Buddha teaches: do your best, have no expectations, and don’t become attached to any particular outcome. The fruits of my labor are given and shared with the community at large. It is not mine to keep or hold on to.

At what point did you want to educate spas and wellness facilities on cancer awareness? Was there something, someone, or some moment that made you say, “Spas need to be educated”?

Originally I just wanted to give gift certificates out to cancer patients and survivors to nurture themselves. And that still is a big mission for me, hence our relationship with Spafinder Wellness 365. But I had no one to refer them to. So it was a great idea but no critical mass.

Additionally and even more important to me is that spas are turning away clients because they are afraid to work with them. You have no idea what it is like to field a call from a client whose doctor told them to go and get a massage because they had anxiety from their cancer diagnosis, only to be turned away at a spa. This cannot happen. I am very passionate about this. This happens because of the fear being created in the industry about working with clients who have been touched by cancer. A lot of it is lack of information and training.

Wellness for Cancer’s role is to teach what a therapist can do safely, when they should refer to a specialist, and when to reschedule an appointment. We teach what you can do within the scope of your practice and how to position yourself as not “medical” and certainly not promising any alleviation of medical side effects. We need to be very careful as an industry what we are teaching and what we are doing. We have to be very careful what we teach and selective in the information that we are providing. The last thing I want is for an esthetician to be discussing side effects of drugs because they took a few hour classes on that. Now that person is crossing the line in to medical and positioning themselves as an expert–- a clear violation of their scope of practice and malpractice insurance.

So it is a fine line between on what to educate people: giving them enough information but not too much that they feel overly confident giving advice on subjects that they have no business talking about. Our training is purposely called cancer awareness because the term oncology is a medical one, and is defined as “the study and treatment of cancer and tumors.”

You have your own meditative practice, right?

Yes, I learned meditation under Felix Lopez, a former buddhist monk and under Sri Dharma Mittra, a famous yoga guru.

How has this informed what you’re doing with the organizations?

By sitting in silence, I learn to see how my mind works. To see what is real and what is just based on a thought or an assumption. Meditation has taught me to be less reactive and to know when I am being led by my ego versus my heart. It gives me perspective.

At the program level,  we moved to bringing mindfulness and meditation in to cancer centers at the request of Dr. Virginia Borges, MD, of the University of Colorado Hospital Borges Lab.  She found meditation helpful for herself and to her patients and wanted it included in our first Spa Day event at University of Colorado back in 2011.   Since then, we have grown from just providing spa services and moving in to mind-body tools.  It is very rewarding to see people understand that when they “fight” they are fighting themselves.  The cancer is themselves, it is in their body, it is in their cells.  It is truly a beautiful moment when they recognize that when they go through cancer therapy, they are doing the best that they can, and by providing a calm environment, they allow the therapies to do a better job.

As an organization we are actively involved with educating the top leaders in the spa industry on the role of mindfulness and meditation.  We work closely with The Global Spa and Wellness Summit as an industry research sponsor because we know that evidence will help move the industry forward.  In 2013, the summit had his Holiness the Dali Lama speak about the role of mindfulness in general.  At the 2014 summit in Morocco, we provided meditations and mindfulness discussions with industry leaders.

And in 2015, we will be the meditation sponsor at the Summit.  We really are committed to making a difference from the top down, bottom up, and from collaborative industries like wellness and medical.  We are very strategic and selective in our efforts because we only have so much bandwidth.

How did it evolve and grow into your partnership with Spafinder?

I actually went to one of the first Spafinder retreats for spa leaders back in 2001. I found them to be a passionate organization. In 2013, upon returning from the Global Spa and Wellness Summit in India, Mia Kyricos, the Chief Brand Officer for Spafinder Wellness 365 and I discussed the need for the category of cancer aware and the vision of helping to be a bridge between spa/wellness centers and individuals and their networks who want to help their friend or loved one.

How is Spa4thePink different from Wellness for Cancer?

Spa4thePink is the parent organization. Wellness for Cancer is the training arm of Spa4ThePink. The funds from training underwrite/sponsor our retreats and events at cancer centers, and at our own healing center called Jhana Center.

Why are there two different levels of certification of cancer awareness?

We worked with Spafinder and created two certifications for spas, wellness centers, yoga studios, gyms and Pilates studios within the Spafinder network. It is based on a point system. Cancer Aware Basic implies that a client can receive limited services and on limited days.

Cancer Aware Comprehensive means that a client can receive several services on any given day. Our role is to verify the credentials of a center as a business. So if they say that they can provide massage to clients who have or have had cancer, we ask to see the certificate of attendance for all the therapists who are trained in cancer-focused treatments. We make no guarantees on the actual therapists or level of service provided at a center, so there is always an element of buyer risk, as with anything.

We are thankful that Spafinder has stepped up to provide a directory category for cancer aware. We field a lot of messages and requests from hospitals, families, national organizations, and employers looking for this information.

If people wanted to help or donate, how can they? What are some of the different options you have?
There are three different options if you’d like to contribute to the Spa4thePink cause. You can donate, nominate or designate. All donations will help fund outreach programs at cancer centers and retreats at resort spas for cancer patients. Your contribution will go towards spa treatments and products tailored to those with cancer, meditation and mindfulness classes, and healthy meals for attendees. Nominate: In addition to donating, you can also nominate a friend or family member to be selected for attendance at these space-limited retreats. Normally, cancer centers nominate patients who they know would greatly benefit from the retreat, but cancer centers only capture a small portion of cancer patients in need of de-stressing. And finally, you can designate: make sure a loved one can attend a retreat by nominating them and paying for their attendance. The cost depends on the location and venue, and doesn’t include transportation to/from the retreat.

Visit http://www.wellnessforcancer.com/donate/ to contribute.

If organizations, like ours for example, wanted to help, what would be the best way to do that?

There are many ways to help, it just depends on how much time an organization has to put into helping. For some organizations, it may be writing a check and sponsoring a retreat. For others, it may be like what Organic Spa Magazine just did for us, which was to provide us with an opportunity to showcase what we do at one of their media events. It could be running an active marketing campaign to raise funds for our retreats, or it could be providing us with complimentary rooms for a weekend retreat with cancer survivors. It just depends on the resources an organization has and is able to provide.

What has the response been like from the spa and wellness communities?

Overwhelmingly supportive. We constantly hear, “It’s about time.” Or, “We just turned someone away last week, wish I had met you sooner. How can we help?” We just returned from the Global Spa and Wellness Summit in Morocco where Felix quietly lead the mindfulness and meditation program, and globally it was cheered on. At the ISPA Conference in Las Vegas, both members of the board and members of the International Spa Association stopped by and offered unconditional support.

Tell me a little about your Spa4thePink programs and retreats.

Our retreats are led by mindfulness and meditation teacher, Felix Lopez. As a former Buddhist monk he has the capacity to step in as a chaplain to comfort an individual no matter what denomination. He has been beautifully received at cancer centers, by doctors and social workers, for his ability to connect with an individual and meet them where they are.

At our retreats, we provide spa services, meditation, mindfulness classes, and health coaching all at the group and individual level. We help individuals embrace the present moment, reconnect with who they are, and find peace within. It’s what they need. It’s what they are searching for. And believe it or not, it is with them all the time, it is free, and they just have to learn how to tap in to it. But with so much about mindfulness and meditation in the press, the subject of mindfulness and meditation can be confusing and feel like another to-do list item. In fact, true mindfulness is about letting go and taking things off your to-do list. Imagine that one….

With so many wonderful places to choose from, how do you decide where to hold your retreats? 

Spas that have taken cancer-focused training and support the great role for spa and wellness are where we hold the retreats. Additional factors include location, capacity, what they are willing to offer, overall enthusiasm for the program and success of the program at their facility.

How much does it cost usually, for someone to attend one of your retreats?

It depends on what the hotel and spa/wellness center can provide, discount or offer. The price is dependent on how many people attend the retreat, whether or not we get comps for the room. Often times the spas want to contribute more than just the spa service — they want to help with hotel rooms or lunches. The spa might sponsor part of that.

What are the other programs you have to help those “who happen to have cancer” besides the retreats?

First, we have the development of mind-body tools for healing. Thanks to the funding of Susan G. Komen Aspen, we have developed and continue to develop mind-body tools like CDs, workbooks, workshops, and retreats for the English- and Spanish-speaking population who have been touched by cancer. Our tools have already made their way through Colorado, Mexico, Spain, Morocco, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We continue to focus on the Latino population as an underserved market. We would like to do more within the US –- we need people to help us by sponsoring events and marketing to their local communities.

Secondly, we’re running events and workshops at cancer centers. There are not enough trained spas to keep up with the demands of events at cancer centers. Thus, the need for training. We have an incredible opportunity and we really need help. We have a very long waitlist of cancer centers wanting events. Visit http://www.wellnessforcancer.com/give-back/ for more information on our programs.

Thank you so much Julie, for taking the time to answer all of our questions. We hope this will be very helpful for both spas and spa-goers alike. 

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About the Author

Spa Pro
This spa-loving mystery woman has been going to the spa for 10+ years, and has had therapeutic treatments like massages for over 20 years. Her ideal spa day would include stretchy time in the sauna, a sugar scrub, followed by 2-hour massage and ending with some meditative time by the ocean.

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