Massage Therapy and
Cancer Treatment

What do massage therapy and cancer have to do with each other? Massage therapy for cancer, or “oncology massage”, is a specialized medical massage for patients receiving cancer treatment. Massage therapy is not a cure for cancer.

Oncology massage will help you feel better as you go through cancer treatment. The side effects of radiation and chemotherapy are numerous. Sometimes the cancer treatment might have to be postponed due to the side effects of chemotherapy until you feel better. However, massage therapy for cancer can greatly help you get through those nasty side effects that you have to endure from cancer treatment.

At a time when your body is weakened and fighting back you need all the positive effects you can get in your arsenal. Something as simple as a warm soothing touch of massage can make a great difference in how you feel. That’s why massage therapy and cancer treatment should be done together.

The skin is the largest organ in the body. It is filled with receptors that signal a human touch, a therapeutic touch that helps your body heal, bringing a very positive stimulus to your brain.

Complications from cancer treatment can linger well after the treatment is over. Sometimes you will still feel the side effects months and even years after your cancer treatment. When you feel better in your everyday life you can recover from chemotherapy and radiation treatments faster and get back to normal life faster.

This page is dedicated to and in loving memory of Julie Henness


The Research About Massage and Cancer

It used to the taught that massage therapy and cancer were not to be mixed. Massage Schools taught that massage would spread cancer in the body. Fear of harming someone was incentive enough to not even try it. However, recent research has shown that massage will not spread cancer!

In research on how cancer spreads, it has been found to be a complicated series of physiological processes in the body. Something as simple as mechanical pressure from massage doesn’t affect the growth and spread of cancer cells. The information is now clear, the results are in and massage therapy and cancer treatment is being done widely. Massage can safely be given in one form or another at each stage of the cancer journey.

The American Cancer Society describes the steps of how cancer metastasizes this way:

“In order for cancer cells to spread to new parts of the body, they have to go through several changes. They have to be able to break away from the original tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymph system, which can carry them to another part of the body. At some point they need to attach to the wall of a blood or lymph vessel and move through it into a new organ. They then need to be able to grow and thrive in their new location. All the while, they need to be able to avoid attacks from the body's immune system. Going through all these steps means the cells that start new tumors may no longer be exactly the same as the ones in the tumor they started in. This may make treatment more difficult.”

Each one of those steps must take place in the proper order for the process to be successful in spreading cancer.

Scientific research has only recently found that some tumors are able to form their own new lymph vessels. This process is known as lymphangiogenesis. The new vessels would have the probablility of spreading to nearby lymph nodes, but not speading to distant parts of the body.

There are no set specifics on how massage might help you. Each massage therapist is different and each massage therapy and cancer patient is different. Many studies have been done but the variables are too different to put them all together and come up with a final answer about the positive results you can expect. The many different types of massage therapy and cancer also make scientific research and controlled studies complicated.

A Light, Tender Touch

Along with research studies, many anecdotal reports point to positive results from massage therapy and cancer treatments. A therapist must adapt oncology massage to fit the medical conditions of each individual person. If you are going through cancer treatment your body is more fragile.

What might be a regular deep tissue massage when you are well, could be too overwhelming for your system if you are going through the rigorous treatment of radiology or chemotherapy. Light touch is the healing touch that you want provided.

During cancer treatment the body uses all of its resources and energy to fight the cancer, as well as the effects of the treatment. It is extremely demanding in all aspects. Deep tissue massage is too demanding on the body. A deep tissue massage might give you flu-like symptoms for several days.

Deep massage has the effect of cleansing and removing cellular waste from tissues. This would be too overwhelming on the body when it is fighting cancer and the treatment process. Save the deep tissue massage for when you are cancer free and have recovered completely from treatment. No matter how good you might feel at the time, don’t chance deep tissue massage.

Help With the Pain

Pain is one of the biggest targets for the massage therapy and cancer treatment experience. The pain could be musculoskeletal, a side effect of the cancer itself, or pain as the result of treatment or surgery. Pain affects your quality of life and how well you can function or not function.

Many times pain medications help tremendously, but, many times more help is needed to take the edge off the pain cycle that you are enduring. A gentle, soothing massage touch many times will help with the pain. It is not yet proven that massage can lessen the use of pain medication needed, but it is still being studied. Anacdotal and case studies have reported help in pain relief and the possiblility of less pain medication use.

Massage for the Anxiety and Stress

To say that anxiety comes with cancer is an understatement! Right?Reduced anxiety is the most consistent result experienced with massage therapy and cancer treatment. Massage to reduce the anxiety experienced with radiation or chemotherapy has been widely studied and the results have been very positive. It is well proven that massage relieves stress and anxiety.

At a time when hospital and doctor visits are common, tests and treatments, poking, prodding , needles and any number of no fun intrusive drugs or radiation are happening, massage is a welcome intervention for your body! It is a gentle therapeutic touch that brings comfort. The body is made to need to be touched.

Anxiety sometimes intensifies your feeling of pain and might worsen the perception of how you experience all the myriad of symptoms during cancer treatment. Being able to relax and deal with the stress and anxiety of what you are experiencing is desperately needed.

Decreases Your Fatigue

Fatigue is a problem that just about every cancer patient has to deal with. Not much research has been done on this problem, but the few studies that have been done show that a reduction in fatigue short-term is a real plus. However, further studies are needed and the effects on long-term fatigue have not been done yet. Massage therapists often hear their clients report improvement in their fatigue level, with more energy levels to go about normal activities with their family.

Helps Normalize Sleep Patterns

Research on levels of improvement in insomnia with massage again is hard to measure and hard to study. Research has to go by the patient’s perception of improved sleep and sleep patterns. However, the many varied stories that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment have given are numerous. Many patients have said they had their best night of sleep after a massage since being in the hospital or since they started treatment.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea, especially delayed nausea, is a common problem when going through treatment. Many report that day 2 through 4 after a treatment is the worst time for nausea and vomiting. This is a major problem and a big factor in nourishment, weight loss, dehydration, imbalance of electrolytes, damage to the esophagus, and kidney toxicity. All of this factors into your overall wellness.

Nutrition intake and keeping nourishment down is a continual problem, leading to weight loss and muscle wasting. If you can stay healthy you can tolerate treatment better. Many patients report nausea where sights, taste, and smells associated with treatment sets off nausea, increasing anxiety.

Again, the studies are not there to prove it yet, but many touch therapists have reports of their massage therapy and cancer clients having this phenomenon transformed by massage.

Improves Immune Function

Numerous massage therapy and cancer research studies indicate that massage will increase immune function. Again, more research is needed. The Touch Research Institute has done some studies on this.

A study examining the effect of massage on "Natural Killer cell” (immune) activity and lymphocyte levels in breast cancer and HIV patients found improvement in both. Massage resulted in an increase in Natural Killer cells and lymphocytes. Natural Killer cells monitor and destroy infected cells, preventing new growth and tumor cells.

Studies also report that a higher Natural Killer cell level does predict a lower cancer recurrence. Funding for more research has been started but immunity research is complicated and clearer conclusions will come with time.

In the following video you will first see a bluish Killer cell in the blood stream. Then you will see a little green, four legged stick figure that squats on a healthy cell representing a viral or cancer cell infecting a healthy cell. That infected cell has just been "told" (through messenger RNA) to create cancer, or viral cells.

Watch as the Killer Cell destroys it and keeps it from creating more unhealthy cells. Remember that oncology massage increases the level of Natural Killer cells.

Manual Lymph Drainage for Lymphedema

Another side effect of some cancer treatments, when lymph nodes have to be removed because they are cancerous, is lymphedema, particularly breast cancer patients. Approximately 25% of breast cancer patients will develop lymphedema after treatment. Over time that increases. Sometimes lymphedema doesn’t show up until years later, even as many as 15 years later.

Anyone who has had lymph nodes removed or radiation treatment for cancer in the armpit, neck or groin is at risk for lymphedema. A specialized type of massage called manual lymph drainage helps with lymphedema.

Manual lymph drainage is light skin deep circular massage, since the lymphatic system is right under the skin. Although compression bandages, skin care and specific exercises also help, it has been shown that these measures along with manual lymph drainage are most effective. (Read the Manual Lymph Drainage page.)

Improves Your Battered Quality of Life

All of these symptoms, along with such things as psychological distress and depression subtract from the quality of life that you have while going through cancer treatment. When you feel better you are better able to deal with life as a cancer patient.

Sometimes it seems as if your whole life is on hold until such a time when you might be able to return to normal family living, or life as it used to be before all this started. Massage therapy should be part of your cancer treatment plan during this stressful time.

Massage therapy and cancer does have many precautions, however. A knowledgeable cancer massage therapist will be aware of these precautions and will only proceed as needed, according to your specific type of cancer and treatment. Please choose a therapist who knows how to provide oncology massage. You will need to share your medical information with the massage therapist.

Let us know below what you think about the topic of massage therapy and cancer.

Next, we will discuss all the "dos and dont's" for massage therapy and cancer. Your doctor must be kept informed and his/her advice must be taken to heart.

Read about Manual Lymph Drainage, related to Massage Therapy and Cancer Treatment.

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By Brenda Rowell Copyright © 2010-2023

Hippocrates said, "The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day."

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