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Massage Therapy for Cancer Patients

Massage therapy, or touch therapy, has been traced as far back as ancient and medieval civilizations.


What’s massage therapy?

Primarily used as a healing technique to treat ailments and injuries, improve circulation, and release toxins from the body, it involves the manipulation of the superficial and deep layers of muscles and soft tissues of the body. Proponents claim that massage therapy can lead to a reduction in pain, stress, anxiety, and depression.

There are a few different types of massage therapies available including deep tissue and sports massage. However, the Swedish massage is currently the most popular in the United States. This technique utilizes the exertion of pressure to relax muscles and improve circulation.


Swedish massage

In Swedish massage, therapists use their hands to incorporate a variety of continuous massage strokes that include effleurage (smooth gliding movement), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (striking or slapping), friction, and vibration. Pressure can be light or firm and is adjusted according to preference.  Therapists may use lotions or oils to help reduce skin irritation. On average, sessions can last from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on which areas are targeted.


Benefits of massage for cancer patients

There is growing interest in the benefits of massage therapy for cancer patients undergoing treatment for cancer. Many cancer centers offer therapeutic massage as a complementary therapy to conventional treatments, striving to implement a higher level of integrative medicine.  Potential benefits include the reduction of symptoms, enhancement of well-being, and improved quality of life [i][ii]. Oncology massages are also offered by specialist massage therapists who have a deeper understanding of different types of cancer, cancer treatments and medications, and how all these will affect the body.

Limited research has been conducted on the effectiveness of massage therapy in cancer care, however, patients tend to report feeling more relaxed and less stressed, and have an overall enhanced sense of wellbeing. Additionally, in one study it was found that up to 48 hours after receiving massage therapy, cancer patients reported 50% reduction in severity of treatment-related symptoms including pain, fatigue, stress and anxiety, depression, and nausea. [iii]


Is massage right for you?

Although massage therapy has been beneficial for patients undergoing treatment, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Individuals undergoing radiation therapy may have discomfort when touched in treatment areas. Massage may not be suitable for patients with metastatic disease to the bone as physical manipulation may worsen an already weakened bone and lead to fracture. Although there is no supporting evidence, there is a growing concern that massage can lead to an increased risk of cancer cells spreading to other parts of the body. As a precaution, massage should be avoided in areas of tumor growth.

It is important that all patients consult their oncologist or healthcare provider before starting or undergoing any complementary therapy.


[i] Satija, A; Bhatnagar, S; etal. Complementary therapies for symptom management in cancer patients. Indian Journal of Palliative Care. (2017) 23:468-79
[ii] Moyer, CA; Rounds, J; Hannum, JW. A meta-analysis of massage therapy research. Psychol Bull (2004). 130(1): 3-18
[iii] Cassileth, B. Vickers, A.; Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer center. Journal of pain and symptom management. (2004). 28(3) Pp 244-249

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