Massage

What it is

Massage involves moving (manipulating) muscles and rubbing or stroking soft tissues of the body. There are many different styles of massage. Oncology massage therapists are specially trained to adjust pressure, speed, duration and direction of strokes to provide a safe session for a person with cancer at any stage of disease.

Some types of massage can reduce lymphoedema (swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid). This is called manual lymphatic drainage.

Why use it

All styles of massage aim to promote deep relaxation in tissue by applying pressure to the body’s muscles and pressure points. This helps to release both muscular and emotional tension. The style of massage used for people during or after cancer treatment will depend on the treatment they’re having.

Over the years, there has been a general concern that massage can increase the risk of cancer cells spreading to other parts of the body. However, there is no evidence that this happens.

What to expect

Massage usually occurs in a warm, quiet room. It can be given while you either lie on a massage table or sit in a chair. The therapist uses a variety of strokes on different parts of the body. When performing massage on a person with cancer, therapists may need to adjust their pressure and avoid certain areas of the body.
Some styles of massage are done with you fully clothed; others require you to undress to your underwear so the therapist can use oil to move their hands over your skin more easily. The therapist may place pillows under different parts of your body so they’re supported. Let the therapist know if you need anything to feel more comfortable, such as a change in pressure or another blanket. You may like to close your eyes during the massage.

Evidence

Many scientific studies have shown that oncology massage is effective in reducing symptoms such as stress, pain, anxiety, depression, nausea and fatigue in people who have had chemotherapy or surgery for cancer.

Massage may be available in some hospitals and palliative care units. Ask your doctor or nurse if it’s offered at the centre where you are having your treatment. To find a private practitioner trained in oncology massage, visit Oncology Massage Training and enter your postcode in the “Find Your Nearest Therapist” box.

Massage concerns for people with cancer

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 (peripheral neuropathy), and may find they bruise or bleed easily. Massage should be light with no pressure on the affected areas.

Radiation therapy – The skin may be sensitive to touch after radiation therapy. It may look red and appear sunburnt. If you are having radiation therapy, 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, gentle “lotioning” massage with soft hands or gently holding other areas can provide comfort and support.

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 radiation therapy to these areas, you should only have a very gentle massage in that area of the body. Ideally massage needs to be 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 lymphoedema.org.au.

Bone fragility – Radiation therapy or medicines, or the cancer itself, may cause the bones to become more fragile. Care should be taken to avoid undue pressure.

      — Lilly


This information was last reviewed in May 2018
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