Massage Therapy and Cancer: What the Experts Say

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In recent decades, medical experts have shown an increased interest in massage therapy research. As they dig deeper into the science of massage, researchers are finding benefits for people with all kinds of physical ailments. In people with cancer, massage therapy sessions can relieve pain, improve sleep, and increase immune function, among other things. While the benefits are vast, it is important to talk with a physician before seeking massage therapy as a complementary treatment.

Can Massage Therapy Relieve Cancer Symptoms?

During a three-year period, researchers at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center studied 1,290 cancer patients who received massage therapy sessions. They asked study participants to rate symptoms such as pain, nausea, stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue on a scale from 1-10 before and after treatment.

Massage therapy reduced cancer patients’ symptoms by roughly 50%. Outpatients saw 10% more improvement than inpatients and noticed no return of symptoms after a 48-hour follow-up. The researchers highlighted massage therapy’s substantial improvement of patients’ symptoms as well as the increasing popularity of massage therapy as a complementary cancer treatment.

Can Massage Therapy Help Cancer Patients Sleep Better?

Many people with cancer have difficulty getting enough quality sleep. In 2003, two Stanford psychiatrists researched the ways sleep quality affected patients’ hormonal balance and found sleep directly affects at least two cancer-fighting hormones. Sleep deprivation also causes the body to turn off more than 700 genes, including those that manage inflammation, immunity, stress, metabolism, and cancer.

In a recent study in Iran, researchers found massage therapists were able to help cancer patients improve their sleep quality. They recommended massage for people with cancer to get the healthy, healing sleep they need without having to rely on medication.

Should Breast Cancer Patients Get Massage Therapy?

Talk to your doctor about any adjustments you should make during your massage sessions. They may recommend a massage therapist with special training and knowledge about people with particular types of cancer, such as breast cancer. For example, it might be best to lie on your back during massages while you’re recovering from breast surgery. If your lymph nodes have been removed, ask your massage therapist to use a very light touch near the affected areas, including your arm and underarm area. If you have arm lymphedema, tell your massage therapist to avoid your arm altogether. Instead, get manual lymphatic drainage, a special type of massage for those with arm lymphedema.

If you are currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, ask your therapist to use a light touch to avoid any possibility of bruising (which can put stress on an already weakened immune system). A light touch can also help if your skin is very sensitive due to these treatments. You might ask your massage therapist to massage you through clothing or a towel, avoid any temporary markings in the corners of your radiation treatment area, and leave the massage oils on the shelf as they have the potential to irritate sensitive skin.

Is Massage Appropriate for People with Advanced Cancer?

A University of Colorado Hospital study reviewed relevant data collected by many experts and determined massage was safe and beneficial for cancer patients. The study’s author recommended oncologists talk with their patients about massage therapy (when appropriate) to relieve stress, anxiety, and pain.

A research team at the Harvard Medical School determined metastatic (advanced stage) cancer patients who received two to three massage therapy sessions in their homes enjoyed a better quality of life that persisted for at least a week after treatment. These experts highlighted massage therapy’s potential to reduce pain and improve sleep quality.

At the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, a team of researchers studied 380 adults with advanced cancer who experienced moderate/severe pain (90% of these people were in hospice care). Over a two-week period, they gave study participants either six 30-minute massage therapy sessions or just simple touch and attention.

The researchers found massage therapy improved patients’ mood and relieved their immediate pain. They pointed out that simply giving attention and gentle touch also had a therapeutic benefit.

In another study, researchers conducted a secondary analysis of the above study. After each treatment, massage therapists filled out six-page treatment forms. The secondary research team examined these documents and made some new findings.

The researchers found 93% of advanced cancer patients could turn over and achieve any position they desired for their massage treatments. About 77% of the time, massage therapists noted patients preferred to sit or lie on their backs during their sessions, and 10% of participants chose to lie face down or on their sides. Even people with late-stage cancer had the mobility to enjoy and benefit from massage therapy.

About 42% of cancer patients in this study showed signs of fatigue or weakness during massage therapy sessions, but only asked to stop early in 2% of cases. The study’s authors pointed out that the massage therapists they studied were trained to work with advanced-stage cancer patients. They knew how to use a gentle touch, deal with low-energy clients, and work around medical devices such as oxygen lines, and feeding tubes.

For those seeking a massage for relief from cancer symptoms, it may be most beneficial to find a massage therapist who has extensive experience in treating those with cancer.


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  1. Massage A says

    I know some research is still underway about benefits of massage therapy to cancer patients but one thing is for sure that it helps in healing the chemotherapy pain to an extent.

  2. Adrian O. says

    Thank you so much sharing such an informative article. Currently, there is a dearth of randomized controlled trials of massage therapy in cancer patients. Though, after reading this article I might agree with the fact that along with the regular radiation treatment for cancer, massage therapy might help patients to recover faster than the estimated period. Also, I have seen people, for example, my uncle who is a cancer survivor. Having radiation therapy along with the chemotherapy for his condition and better health recovery. Thus, with the help of the massage therapy, cancer patients might be able to recover from the other radiation side effects in a healthy and safe manner.

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