Massage and Cancer: Q&A

What is massage?

Massage is an ancient technique that involves moving (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.

 

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 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.

 

What are the benefits of massage?

Scientific studies have been done to show 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.

Massage may also improve sleep, nerve damage (neuropathy), quality of life, and mental clarity and alertness.

Another benefit of massage is reducing lymphoedema, which is swelling in the tissues caused by a build-up of fluid after surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.

Why do people with cancer use massage?

As well as improving physical symptoms, some people with cancer choose to have a massage because it:

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

 

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 too much pressure on the affected area and underlying organs.

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 when we move: muscles contract and compress lymph vessels to force the movement of lymph.

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.

 

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 review1 of the 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 study2 published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1,300 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 study3 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.

 

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

2Cassileth 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.

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

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