Massage can be a supportive therapy to help manage symptoms and side effects before, during and after cancer treatment.
If you’ve ever had a good massage, you know firsthand how it can help you relax and relieve anxiety and tension. But did you know that massage can be used to enhance the treatment of many illnesses, including cancer?
Massage therapy is now a treatment option at some of the most prestigious cancer centers in the world. It can help to manage some of the symptoms and side effects before, during, and after cancer treatment.
Types of massage
Several different types of massage therapies have been studied for cancer care. They range from light touch to deep tissue pressure, depending on the person’s condition.
- Swedish massage. Uses smooth, gliding strokes and firm but gentle kneading of soft tissues, applied to all body parts. Lotion or massage oil is usually applied to the skin first.
- Aromatherapy massage. Blends selected scented oils into massage oil. Certain natural scents are thought to enhance the effects of the massage on physical and emotional well-being.
- Reflexology. Uses applied pressure to specific parts of the feet and hands that are believed to correspond with other parts of the body.
- Acupressure. This form of traditional Chinese medicine uses focused manual pressure rather than acupuncture needles. The goal is to adjust the flow of “life-force” to manage symptoms.
Benefits of massage
Massage can be an excellent complementary therapy when performed by specially trained providers, but it should never replace traditional medicine for cancer treatment. When used in conjunction with medical treatments, massage therapy may:
- Ease cancer-related pain as well as pain related to treatment and muscle tension. Massage may help “take the edge off” of acute pain.
- Help control nausea for those undergoing cancer treatment and some types of bone marrow transplants. A small study suggested that massage helped lower medical costs of managing nausea and vomiting.
- Improve sleep and lessen fatigue, common side effects of cancer and its treatment.
- Ease stress and anxiety. The deeply relaxing effects of massage can help you cope with the emotional stress of having a life-threatening illness.
- Help manage lymphedema, a buildup of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues, caused by tumors or cancer treatment. Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a very specific type of massage that stimulates the flow of fluid from the affected area.
Taking precautions – a must for cancer patients
It is of the utmost importance that you check with your doctor first if you plan to have any type of massage or bodywork. Massage can be beneficial, but there are a few special concerns to be aware of if you have cancer:
- People who have had radiation may find even light touch on the treatment area to be uncomfortable.
- Radiation treatment may increase the chances for an allergic reaction or skin irritation from the massage or the lotions or oils applied.
- Some experts think that manipulating tissue directly in the tumor area could increase the spread of cancer cells. Until more is known, it is wise for cancer patients to avoid massage near tumors and lumps that could be cancerous.
- Patients with low blood platelet counts or who are on blood-thinning medication may bruise more easily. They should avoid deep tissue massage. This is often the case if you are getting chemotherapy or radiation.
- If cancer is in the bone, deep massages in affected areas can lead to bone fractures.
- A regular method of massage can actually make lymphedema worse. If you have lymphedema, find a therapist trained specifically in manual lymphatic drainage.
- Some people undergoing chemotherapy may have flu-like symptoms after the massage.
Massage therapy should be given only by a trained professional with expertise in working safely with people who have cancer. Though there is no national certification, oncology massage therapists have additional education and training. Your doctor or other member of your cancer treatment team can help you find a qualified message therapist.