Body-based practices

Body-based practices, including energy therapies, can be divided into two categories:

  • passive bodywork techniques – therapies where some form of touch or manual pressure is applied to your body or the unseen energy field surrounding your body, e.g. massage, aromatherapy, reflexology
  • active exercise techniques – require you to actively undertake a series of movements to stimulate and stretch different parts of the body, e.g. yoga, tai chi, qi gong

More vigorous manipulative techniques, such as chiropractic and osteopathy.


What it is: Massage involves moving (manipulating) muscles and rubbing or stroking soft tissues of the body.

Why use it: There are many styles of massage. They all aim to promote deep relaxation in tissue by applying pressure to the muscles and pressure points of the body. This helps to release both muscular and emotional tension. Some types of massage can reduce lymphoedema.

What to expect:The therapist uses a variety of strokes on different parts of the body.

When performing massage on a person with cancer, therapists need to adjust their pressure and avoid certain areas of the body.

Some styles of massage are done with you fully clothed; others usually require you to undress to your underwear so the therapist can apply oil to your skin to enable easy movement of hands.

Evidence: Many scientific studies have shown that massage can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and nausea in people who have had chemotherapy or surgery for cancer.

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What it is: A form of foot and hand massage. Reflexologists believe that certain points on the feet and hands correspond to the body’s internal organs and systems, like a map.

Why use it: Many people find reflexology relaxing. By pressing on reflex points, energy meridians are unblocked and healthy changes can occur in the corresponding parts of the body.

What to expect: After talking through your case history, you remove your footwear and lie down.

The reflexologist works with their hands on your bare feet, possibly using cream or oil.

Usually reflexology feels like a relaxing foot massage, although sometimes the therapist’s touch can be subtle.

Evidence: Several clinical trials have looked at using reflexology to help with cancer symptoms such as pain and anxiety. Results are mixed and studies involved small groups of people so it is difficult to say if the reflexology had any effect.

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What it is: This is the use of aromatic essential oils extracted from plants for healing relaxation. They are used mainly during massage but can also be used in baths, inhalations or vaporisers (oil burners).

Why use it: When inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the oil stimulates positive effects on different systems in the body.

What to expect: The aromatherapist blends essential oils and adds them to a base (carrier) oil to apply to your skin during a massage. They may also be used in an oil burner or a warm bath.

Different blends have different effects on your moods or symptoms you are experiencing, such as fatigue, pain, sleeplessness or nausea.

If a particular aroma is unpleasant, let your therapist know.

Evidence: Some studies have shown reduced anxiety and depression in people with cancer. Studies in people with advanced cancer also show aromatherapy improves quality of life by reducing depression.

More information
  • International Aromatherapy and Aromatic Medicine Association –
Oils used in bodywork

Base oils and essential oils may be used in bodywork. Base (or carrier) oils allow the therapist to work on the skin easily. They are usually made from kernels or nuts, such as almonds. Some therapists use mineral oil, as it is odourless.

Essential oils, such as lavender or tea tree, can be added to base oils. They should not be swallowed or used directly on the skin undiluted.

Different blends are suitable for different moods and energy levels, and may help a range of ailments, such as difficulty with sleeping.

Problems from oils are rare, but some people find they irritate the skin or the smell makes them feel nauseous. Let your therapist know if you have had reactions to oils in the past, or if you start to feel discomfort  during a massage.

Energy therapies

What they are: They work on the concept that everyone has an energy field and unblocking it restores balance.   Techniques include:

  • Bowen therapy
  • polarity therapy
  • reiki
  • healing touch
  • therapeutic touch.

Why use them: Energy therapies are used by some people with cancer, as they are very gentle and do not require the therapist to make many adjustments. The aim is to increase energy levels and promote relaxation and wellbeing.

What to expect: Usually a client sits or lies down fully clothed. The therapist may gently touch you or may hold their hands slightly above your body. The aim is to use their own healing energy to identify energy imbalances and promote health. This may generate a feeling of warmth.

Sometimes therapists perform different moves on or above the body – these are believed to stimulate the flow of energy. The session is usually very restful.

Evidence: Clinical research has not proven the idea of an energy field within or surrounding the body. However personal stories (anecdotal evidence) show energy therapies provide a deep sense of calm and relaxation, often helping to relieve pain and anxiety, reduce stiffness and improve posture.

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What it is: Acupuncturists put fine, sterile needles just under the skin into points or apply a laser probe on acupuncture points along the meridian channels in the body.

Why use it: Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the theory that this unblocks and moves qi (energy) to strengthen vital force and reduce physical and emotional symptoms.

Western Chinese or medical acupuncture is an interpretation of acupuncture. It works on the theory that the needles stimulate nerves to release the body’s own natural chemicals, which help reduce pain or regulate the brain and other functions.

What to expect: After a consultation, which may include tongue and pulse analysis, the practitioner gently positions sterile needles into points on your body.

  • The needles are left in place for 30 seconds to 30 minutes, and may be turned.
  • You may feel a tingling or dull aching sensation, but should not feel pain.
  • Acupuncturists may also implant and cover special needles, which can remain in place for several days. These needles can be pressed to relieve some symptoms such as insomnia or nausea.

Evidence: The main areas of research into acupuncture for cancer are chemotherapy-related nausea and cancer pain, and several clinical trials have shown good results. Low-strength evidence indicates that acupuncture could ease breathlessness in advanced stages of cancer. Anecdotal evidence suggests acupuncture is relaxing and reduces anxiety.

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What it is: Yoga involves performing poses with the body, slowing and deepening the breath, and focusing the mind. Yoga originated in India but is now popular around the world. There are many styles of yoga with varying intensity – from gentle, such as hatha yoga to vigorous, such as ashtanga yoga/Iyengar. Some styles may not be suitable during some stages of cancer.

Why use it: It helps both physical and emotional health.

What to expect: Wear comfortable clothes. You may be asked to remove your shoes before entering the yoga room. You usually need a yoga mat – this may be available in class.

Most classes last for 1-2 hours. A typical routine involves:

  • quietening the mind
  • working with the breath
  • warm-up stretches
  • series of different yoga postures
  • relaxation.

Always let your yoga teacher know of any treatments you have so they can adjust postures/exercises to suit your needs. You can also seek advice from your medical team.

Evidence: Clinical research has shown that yoga may improve sleep, decrease stress and enhance quality of life. The focus on breathing may also help reduce pain.

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Tai chi

What it is: This is a part of traditional Chinese medicine that combines movement, breath work and meditation. Movements create stability in the body, reflecting an ancient Chinese concept of balance known as “˜yin and yang’.

Why use it: Breath work is calming and meditative, while creating and holding the poses helps loosen and strengthen the muscles.

What to expect: Classes follow a similar routine, which usually include:

  • warm-up exercises
  • watching the instructor do different moves
  • attempting the poses with help from the instructor
  • cooling down
  • relaxation.

Evidence: Some studies review tai chi and qi gong together because of the similarities in philosophy and elements. Anecdotal evidence has shown tai chi improves quality of life, balance, agility, flexibility, muscle tone and bone density. It may also help reduce stress and blood pressure.

Qi gong

What it is: Qi gong – pronounced “˜chee goong’ – is also part of traditional Chinese medicine. ‘Qi’ means one’s life energy, and ‘gong’ means work. It combines movement with controlled breathing and meditation.

Why use it: Movements keep the flow of energy running through the body’s energy channels. This can help generate a sense of wellbeing and peace, as well as improving both mental and physical vitality.

What to expect: Classes can include a range of activities:

  • warm-up exercises to loosen the body
  • performing a series of slow movements
  • self-awareness through doing the exercises
  • some meditation while you are lying, sitting, standing or walking.

Evidence: Clinical trials suggest qi gong improves quality of life. Anecdotal evidence suggests it helps reduce anxiety, pain and inflammation, as well as improving general fitness, immunity and fatigue.

Other active exercise techniques

There are other exercise techniques you might like to explore. Although studies with people who have cancer are limited, they are generally accepted as being beneficial for improving breathing, strength, flexibility, mobility, fitness and general wellbeing.

  • Alexander technique – Although not a type of exercise, this approach to balance and wellbeing in mind and body teaches people to be aware of the way they move and hold themselves. By changing the way people use their body, they can enhance their mental and physical functioning on many levels.
    Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique –
  • Feldenkrais – This method helps people become more aware of the way they move and how this contributes to or compensates for bad posture, pain and mobility restrictions. By gently retraining the mind and body to be open to new possibilities in movement, people find ways to become freer and more comfortable.
    Australian Feldenkrais Guild –
  • Pilates – A program that encourages the mind to be aware of its control over one’s muscles. Using awareness of one’s breath and posture, the method helps to strengthen core muscles and correct postural habits that have contributed to pain, reduced mobility and poor coordination.
  • Strength training or lifting weights (resistance training) – This active exercise technique is growing in popularity, particularly for people who have had treatment for breast cancer. Recent research shows that breast cancer survivors with lymphoedema who participate in a supervised weight-lifting program do better than people who do not lift weights.
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