Massage and cancer key questions

What is massage?

Massage is an ancient technique that involves manipulating muscles and rubbing or stroking soft tissues of the body.

Massage is considered a type of complementary therapy. Complementary therapies aim to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms of disease. They are used together with conventional or mainstream medicine. Complementary therapies are not used instead of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery or drug therapy.

While massage doesn’t treat the cancer itself, it may help reduce the side effects caused by conventional treatments and improve quality of life and wellbeing.

Why do people with cancer use massage?

As well as improving physical symptoms, some people with cancer say that having a massage:

  • makes them feel whole again
  • helps them to relax
  • helps them share feelings in an informal setting
  • makes them feel more positive about their body
  • rebuilds hope.

Research shows that massage of muscle and soft tissue does not spread cancer cells.

What are the benefits of massage?

Scientific studies have looked at the effects of various body-based practices on people having cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery. These studies have shown that massage may reduce:

  • pain
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • anxiety and depression.

Individuals who have had massages during cancer treatments have reported a range of positive outcomes such as improvements in:

  • sleep
  • the health of the scar tissue
  • quality of life
  • mental clarity and alertness
  • the range of movement.

Is massage safe for people with cancer?

Light, relaxing massage can safely be given to people at all stages of cancer. Tumour or treatment sites should not be massaged to avoid discomfort or pressure on the affected area and underlying organs. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Some people worry that massage can spread cancer cells throughout the body via the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, organs and nodes through which lymphatic fluid (lymph) flows. It is part of the body’s immune system. Lymphatic circulation occurs naturally as we move.

Cancer may spread (metastasise) into the lymphatic system via the lymph nodes, or it may start in the lymphatic system itself. However, the circulation of lymph – from massage or other movement – does not cause cancer to spread. Researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body.

Where can I have a massage?

Massage may be offered to cancer patients in some hospitals and hospices. Ask your doctor or nurse if massage is available at the centre where you are having your treatment. Some patients are able to have chemotherapy and a hand or foot massage at the same time, or you may prefer to have the massage after the treatment has finished.

You can also have a massage from a private practitioner in their own rooms. Some massage therapists have undertaken specialist oncology massage training. The Oncology Massage Training website can help you locate one near you.

Research into massage for people with cancer

Several clinical studies show that massage can reduce symptoms such as stress, nausea, pain, fatigue and depression.

  • A systematic review (1)  of studies on aromatherapy and massage for relieving symptoms in people with cancer looked at 10 studies including eight randomised controlled trials. It found that massage consistently reduced anxiety and depression. Massage also helped lower nausea and pain, but not as consistently.
  • A large American study (2) published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1300 people with cancer over three years. People in hospital had a 20-minute massage, and people treated as outpatients had a 60-minute session. The study found that overall, massage therapy reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60-minute session.
  • Another American study (3) of 39 people looked at the safety and effectiveness of massage in reducing stress hormone levels in patients with blood cancer. It randomised people to receive aromatherapy, massage or rest. The study concluded  that massage significantly reduced the stress hormone.

1 Fellowes D, Barnes K, Wilkinson SSM. Aromatherapy and massage for symptoms relief in patients with cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Iss 4.

2 Cassileth BR, Vickers AJ. Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer centre. J Pain Symptom Manage 2004 Sep; 28 (3): 244–9.

3 Stringer J et al. Massage in patients undergoing intensive chemotherapy reduces serum cortisol and prolactin. Psycho-Oncology 2008 Oct; 17 (10): 1024–31.

This information was last reviewed in September 2014
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