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Massage for Cancer

What are the Benefits and Risks for People With Cancer

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Updated May 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many cancer centers are now offering massage therapy as a complementary treatment for cancer. In this sense, massage is not used as a treatment for cancer, per se -- such as chemotherapy or surgery would be -- but as a method of helping with the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment.

What exactly is massage therapy, what are the benefits for people living with cancer, and what cautions should be kept in mind?

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage is defined as the rubbing of skin and muscles in the body to give someone a sense of well-being. Many of us are familiar with traditional back rubs, and massage therapy isn’t that much different -- in the sense that it simply feels good to most of us.

 

But when it comes to massage therapy techniques, there are many different forms. Some forms of massage therapy used in people with cancer include Swedish massage, aromatherapy massage, and deep tissue massage. (Deep tissue massage is not usually used during active cancer treatment, but may be used to help with chronic pain and limited motion due to scar tissue after treatment is done.)

General Health Benefits

Researchers believe massage may be helpful for both its physical and psychological benefits.

Physically, massage may:

  • decrease inflammation and swelling
  • improve circulation
  • help sore muscles
  • lower the level of stress hormones in your blood

Emotionally, massage may:

  • help people relax
  • cause the release of chemicals in the body (endorphins) that help with pain
  • provide a distracting experience that helps take our minds off of pain

Benefits for Cancer Survivors

Intuitively, it seems that massage should benefit those of us living with cancer. Physically it can feel good, and it’s hard to beat the emotional calm and serenity as we’re pampered by someone devoted to helping us. But what do the studies say about benefits specifically for cancer patients? Some of them include:
  • Decreased stress and anxiety
  • Improvement in depression
  • Lessened fatigue
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved quality of life
  • Control of pain

In one study, massage therapy brought about immediate pain relief for those suffering with cancer. While the benefits didn’t last too long, massage was found to be a safe and effective way of controlling pain. And while massage therapy may not replace pain medications for those with cancer, it may allow people to use lower doses of pain medications. Another recent study found that massage provided significant pain relief for people living with cancer that had spread to their bones.

Cautions

It’s important to talk with your oncologist before beginning massage therapy –- especially if you have had recent surgery, or are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Some possible risks include:

  • Infection – if your white blood cell count is low due to chemotherapy
  • Bruising
  • Risk of fracture if you have bone metastases (spread of cancer to bone), or are on medications that can weaken your bones
  • Skin breakdown from rubbing – especially during radiation therapy
  • Reactions to the lotions or oils used
  • Rarely, the risk of disrupting an undiagnosed blood clot in the leg
  • There is a theoretical risk that if a cancerous tumor itself is massaged, it could promote spreading

How to Get Started

If your oncologist agrees that massage could be helpful for you, ask her about massage therapists available at your cancer institution. Many large cancer centers have massage therapists on staff. In addition, many centers also offer classes to help your loved ones learn how to do massage for you when you return home.

If massage is not available through your cancer center, you might want to check out the Massage Therapy Directory to see if there are any licensed massage therapists who work with people with cancer in your area.

Further Reading:

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Massage. Updated 01/07/11. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/ManualHealingandPhysicalTouch/massage

Collinge, W. et al. Massage in supportive cancer care. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. 2012. 28(1):45-54.

Corbin, L. Safety and efficacy of massage therapy for patients with cancer. Cancer Control. 2005. 12(3):158-64.

Jane, S. et al. Effects of massage on pain, mood status, relaxation, and sleep in Taiwanese patients with metastatic bone pain: a randomized clinical trial. Pain. 2011. 152(10):2432-42.

Kutner, J. et al. Massage Therapy versus Simple Touch to Improve Pain and Mood in Patients with Advanced Cancer: A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2008. 149(6):369-379.

Listing, M. et al. Massage therapy reduces physical discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. Psychooncology. 2009. 18(12):1290-9.

Listing, M. et al. The efficacy of classical massage on stress perception and cortisol following primary treatment of breast cancer. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2010. 13(2):165-73.

Russell, N. et al. Role of massage therapy in cancer care. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2008. 14(2):209-14.

Toth, M. et al. Massage therapy for patients with metastatic cancer: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2013. 19(7):650-6.

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