Can I receive a massage when I have cancer?
The short answer is yes you can. However, it’s important to find a practitioner that is skilled in working with those who have had a cancer diagnosis and who understands how cancer affects the body. Adaptions and modifications may be needed depending on your current stage of health. These may include length of session, pressure and speed as well as site restrictions, positioning and avoiding any areas affected by cancer, such as tumour sites or lymph nodes, or any areas being treated with radiotherapy. Massage can help relieve the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment such as chemotherapy related fatigue, nausea, stress, depression, insomnia and pain. It can ease muscle tension and promote relaxation and emotional wellbeing. Therapeutically it provides a comforting touch and even a gentle hand or foot massage can be beneficial. Sometimes massage may release emotions, this is a natural reaction and you should not feel embarrassed or concerned if this is the case.
In the past people worried that massage could cause cancer cells to spread to other parts of their body. This is a myth, cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body. Massage or other movement such as exercise does not cause cancer to spread.
I am a certified oncology massage therapist. Please feel free to contact me if you have any queries or would like to know if it would be suitable for you or anyone you know to receive a massage. It’s not essential you have permission from your medical team but if you are concerned about how massage may affect you then you may wish to discuss it with them prior to your appointment. Sometimes certain specific treatments may require explicit consent in which case I will discuss this with you at the time.
Please note that massage is not in itself a treatment for cancer, but is a complementary therapy to support any medical treatment you may be receiving. It is not suitable for areas affected by lymphodema, you should seek a specialist in Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) if you require treatment for this condition.
Some research on massage and cancer:
A large American study (1), published in 2004, looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1300 people with cancer over three years. People in hospital had a 20-minute massage, and people treated as outpatients had a 60-minute session. The study found that overall, massage therapy reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60-minute session.
A 2009 UK review (2), looking at 14 trials, suggested that massage can help to reduce symptoms such as pain, feeling sick (nausea), anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue). However, it was noted that the quality of some of the trials was poor.
(1) Cassileth BR, Vickers AJ. Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer centre. J Pain Symptom Manage 2004 Sep; 28 (3): 244–9.
(2) Ernst, E. Massage therapy for cancer palliation and supportive care: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Supportive Care in Cancer, 2009. Volume 17, Issue 4
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