When is massage therapy for cancer patients recommended and when is it not useful?

I am asked frequently whether massage might spread cancer by stimulating the circulatory system and lymphatic systems. Doctors routinely recommend walking and exercise to cancer patients, activities that influence those two systems in much the same way as massage. So does a hot shower and sexual activity, neither of which is off-limits for the vast majority of cancer patients. If you’re new to massage we recommend a Swedish massage or light shiatsu. Newcomers should probably avoid deep tissue work such as Rolfing, which can be uncomfortable and could further stress the immune system, certainly not the effect you would want during cancer treatment.

However, there always will be special circumstances and individual personalities that might make massage inappropriate. But these considerations rarely have to do with the disease. You should, however, draw the therapist’s attention to any area of your body that may be sensitive -for example, if you’ve been having radiation treatments or have recently had surgery.

You may be interested to know that the American Cancer Society considers massage “one of the most supportive and helpful complementary therapies available” to patients and views it as helpful both physically and emotionally because “it soothes the soul and the mind.” Beyond that, researchers at the Touch Research Institutes (TRI) at the University of Miami have found that massage therapy reduced anxiety and stress hormones, elevated mood, improved the quality of life, and enhanced immune function in breast cancer patients. Another TRI study showed that massage therapy reduced the level of pain perception by an average of 60 percent and reduced anxiety among 9 hospitalized men experiencing cancer-related pain. And a TRI study of children with leukemia found that daily massage therapy decreased distress behavior during medical procedures and enhanced immune function.

No one suggests – or should suggest – that massage therapy can cure or halt cancer, but it can help relieve some symptoms and some of the side effects of treatment, ease tension and stress, as well as improve the quality of life and sense of well-being. We make the point that while massage therapy can’t treat the disease – the physiological changes underlying cancer – it can address the illness – the way patients actually feel.

Although different types of massage therapy are often contraindicated for cancer, knowledgeable, skilled touch is in some form rarely contraindicated. One of the most soothing treatments for a bedridden person is massage. In Europe and elsewhere, it is used frequently to promote relaxation, decrease pain and speed healing. It may also help reduce or eliminate the need for certain medications.

Massage therapy can help prevent bedsores. By turning over, you release pressure on the areas on which you have been lying. Massaging the pressured areas encourages more blood to flow into the tissue. If massage is done frequently, it will prevent skin breakdown. The buttocks, tail bone (coccyx), wings of the shoulder blades (scapulae), hips, heels, elbows and bumps (malleoli) around the ankles are susceptible spots for pressure sores.