Massage Therapy for People With Cancer

Benefits and Risks

Woman receiving back massage
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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. The term "integrative treatment" refers to the practice of combining traditional cancer treatments to address the tumor with "alternative" treatments to ease symptoms, and is an approach many cancer centers are now adopting.

Massage Therapy Basics

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:

  • Lessened chemotherapy-related nausea: A 2016 study looking at combining conventional and alternative therapies for cancer found that the combination of dexamethasone, massage therapy, and ginger for chemotherapy-induced nausea worked better than some other combinations of conventional and alternative treatments.
  • Decreased stress and anxiety
  • Lessened cancer fatigue
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved quality of life
  • Control of pain related to cancer: In one study, massage therapy brought about immediate pain relief for those suffering from 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 or to need them less often. Another recent study found that massage provided significant pain relief for people living with cancer that had spread to their bones.

Cautions and Risks

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 potential risks include:

  • Infection, especially if your white blood cell count is low due to chemotherapy
  • Bruising, especially if your platelet count is low due to chemotherapy
  • Risk of fracture if you have bone metastases (spread of cancer to bone), or are on medications that can weaken your bones such as aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer
  • 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 which could be dislodged and travel to the lungs. Of note is that blood clots are common among people with cancer, especially after surgery or during chemotherapy
  • 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.

Alternative Treatments

There are a number of alternative therapies that have been incorporated into cancer treatment as a way to reduce symptoms. These treatments are not intended to replace conventional therapies, but instead to help with the symptoms caused by cancer and cancer treatments. It's a fact that many of the larger cancer centers now practice an "integrative approach," in which they combine the best alternative therapies with traditional treatments in order to reduce side effects and improve the quality of life for people living with cancer.

You may also wish to learn more about some of these options, such as acupunctureyoga for cancer patients, and meditation.

A Word From Verywell

It's only been in recent years that we've begun to address ways to help people live with cancer. Though alternative treatments have received a bad rap due to the use of unproven methods for treating cancer, it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While traditional treatments ranging from surgery to immunotherapy are the mainstay of treating cancer, many of these "alternative" practices may be helpful in reducing your pain or at least lifting your spirits while being treated. Check out the options offered by your cancer center. Even if massage therapy isn't your thing, there are many options which offer the opportunity to improve your quality of life during treatment.

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