Massage and Cancer: Making the right adjustments

Cancer treatments can be demanding on the body. A person having chemotherapy or radiotherapy needs a different type of massage to a person who has just completed a triathlon. The therapist will need to adjust the pressure and speed of strokes.

With the right adjustments, most people with cancer can enjoy the benefits of a massage. After a massage that has been adapted to suit your needs, you will probably 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 – After radiotherapy treatment people may find their skin is sensitive to touch. It may look red and have a burnt appearance. 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 – Immediately after surgery, patients may be at risk of blood clots. While they recover, touching or holding the area or other parts of the body with soft hands can be helpful. Patients may feel tired for some time and will require a gentle approach.

Adjustments for people after cancer treatment

Eventually, you may be able to return to more firm types of massage, but ask your therapist to use less pressure in any area where you are still experiencing discomfort. 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, 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 or only use very light touch. 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 in those areas to avoid undue pressure.

Neuropathy – Certain chemotherapies 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.

How to prepare 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 the oil. They may want to smell it.
  • 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 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. 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 just have their hand held. At the end of life, just holding a person’s hand can bring comfort.

Receiving a massage during palliative care may reduce the person’s pain and they may need fewer medications.

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