Adjusting massage to suit your needs

Cancer treatments can be demanding on the body. Massage during treatment and recovery may lift your mood, and offer comfort and support. However, a person having chemotherapy or radiotherapy needs a different type of massage to an athlete. The therapist will need to adjust the pressure and speed of strokes.

Most people with cancer can enjoy the benefits of a massage that has been adapted to suit their needs. After a massage people say they feel relaxed, more energetic and nurtured.

Adjustments for different treatments

Chemotherapy – This drug treatment affects the whole body. If you have a chemotherapy port, massage should not be done in this area. Some people who have chemotherapy experience tingling in their hands or feet, and may find they bruise or bleed easily. Massage should be light with no pressure on the areas that are affected.

Radiotherapy – The skin may be sensitive to touch after radiotherapy treatment. It may look red and appear sunburnt. If you are having radiotherapy, you should avoid massage to the treated area as you may find even light touch uncomfortable. Massage oils may make already irritated skin feel worse.

Surgery – Recovery after surgery takes time, and it’s important to avoid massaging the area of the operation. However, you may wish to massage other areas of the body. Gentle ‘lotioning’ massage with soft hands or gently holding other areas can provide comfort and support. After surgery, seek advice from a therapist who has been specially trained in massaging scarred tissue.

Adjustments for people after cancer treatment

Ask your therapist to use less pressure in areas where you are still experiencing discomfort. Eventually, you may be able to try more firm types of massage, but some conditions, listed below, will require adjustments to the massage technique for a long period of time.

Risk of lymphoedema – If you’ve had lymph nodes removed from the neck, armpit or groin during diagnosis or treatment, or if you’ve had radiotherapy to these areas, you should only have a very gentle massage in that area of the body. Massage needs to be light, and ideally is part of a manual lymphatic drainage or total lymphatic drainage treatment.

Therapists not trained in these techniques should avoid the affected area. To find a registered lymphoedema practitioner, see

Bone fragility – Some treatments, such as radiation or medications, or the disease itself, may cause the bones to become more fragile. Care should be taken to avoid undue pressure.

Neuropathy – Certain chemotherapy drugs can cause long-term numbness in the hands and feet. A lighter pressure is best for those areas.

Massage for children

Many parents are interested in how massage might help their child during treatment or recovery. If you have a child with cancer, you may want to learn some simple massage techniques as a way of being actively involved in their care.

Preparing a child for a massage

  • Reassure your child that massage is safe and won’t hurt them.
  • Explain or demonstrate the massage technique on yourself or your child before the massage session begins.
  • Allow your child to feel and smell the oil.
  • Ask your child if they’d like the lights dimmed or soothing music played during the session.
  • Let your child know they can stop the massage at anytime if they feel uncomfortable  or don’t want to be touched in a particular way.
  • Parents can remain in a massage session with their child, though an older child might prefer to be alone. Ask what suits them.

Adjustments for the end of life

Providing touch during the last stages of life can offer comfort and let someone know they’re important and loved. It can also be a way of spending quiet time together in a pleasurable and undemanding way. Receiving a massage during palliative care may reduce the person’s pain and they may need fewer medications. Some people worry that having a massage during this time may relax them too deeply and they may let go and pass away. They and their family may need to be reassured that this is unlikely to happen.

A massage therapist or family members or friends can provide the massage. Having a professional massage may give family members and friends the opportunity to rest, eat or go for walk. Some people want a full-body massage, while others may want only parts of the body massaged or to just have their hand held. At the end of life, just holding a person’s hand can bring comfort.

  • Follow the lead of the person having the massage. Any signs that they don’t want to be massaged must be respected. Sometimes they may just want company rather than a massage.
  • Give the person choices. This will help them feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation.
  • Allow the person to do what she or he can do for themselves.
  • Teach the family or friends how to provide a gentle foot or hand massage.
This information was last reviewed in September 2014

This information has been reviewed by: Kate Butler, Supervising Oncology Massage Therapist, Olivia Newton John Cancer and Wellness Centre, Austin Hospital, VIC; Dragana Ceprnja, Health  Professional Educator, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Erinna Ford, Consumer; Jane Hutchens, Naturopath and Registered Nurse, NSW; Katherine Maka, Senior Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Jim Olds, Vice President of Australian Natural Therapists Association, QLD; Helpline Operators, Cancer Council Queensland and Cancer Council SA.

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