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Massage therapy benefits for cancer patients

Tracy Woolrich's picture
The National Cancer Institute has found that half of their cancer centers are offering massage as part of their cancer treatments.

The National Cancer Institute has found that half of their cancer centers are offering massage as part of their cancer treatments. This is great news for those who are receiving treatments that are often harsh and grueling. But does it really help and is there a downside?

According to the National Institute of health an estimated 18 million adults in the United States receive massage therapy in any given year. I am one of those individuals. In my line of work I sit for long periods of time keyboarding information into a computer for internal documentation and insurance reviews. This leaves my muscles knotted. To make matters worse I have fibromyalgia and I get very stiff. I have absolutely no doubt that if I am ever diagnosed with cancer that I would want to incorporate the loving energy of massage and reiki into my treatment regime.

Studies of massage for cancer patients suggest that it decreases anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue. These benefits are promising for those who have cancer and must deal with not only the stress of a serious illness but also the unpleasant side effects of the medical treatments. There are additional studies however that go beyond the obvious benefits of receiving massage therapy from professionals.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Integrative Oncology found that after learning massage techniques in workshops, partners of cancer patients were able to give treatments that reduces pain, anxiety, nausea and other side effects of cancer treatments by 44%. It was felt to be the intimacy of the contact with loved ones that provided the relief as the treatments were not provided by professionals. Even if it is a placebo effect, if there are positive outcomes and it causes no damage with proper training, it has been considered a success,

At the same time a study out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital found that gentle massage not only led to chemical changes that reduces pain and stress but also increases cancer fighting white cells known as lymphocytes. That is scientifically proven and has nothing to do with a placebo effect.
One of the largest published studies comes out of Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. That study reviewed symptom scores for pain, stress, fatigue, depression and nausea. It involved over 1,200 cancer patients and a dozen licensed massage therapists. Swedish, light touch and foot massage were used. Symptom scores declined in severity by nearly 50%. However, the effects of massage were short-term.

It is felt that other elements such as the soft background music, aromatherapy and active listening techniques may be as much to do with the positive outcomes as the act of the massage in itself. The outcomes of the study found that massage therapy reduced anxiety and depression in levels similar to psychotherapy.


There are some individuals that may want to be cautious in regards to getting massage. Individuals with cancer that has spread to the bone or has weakening of the bones through osteoporosis could be injured and should avoid deep pressure massage. Also those who have had radiation may find it uncomfortable. In addition, radiation treatments may cause local skin reactions to lotions and oils used during massage.

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In theory, tissue manipulation in an area of a tumor might increase the risk that cancer cells migrating. Therefore patients should avoid massage near tumors.

Another concern is there are some patients that have lower platelet counts due to chemotherapy or radiation. This may make them more susceptible to bruising and should ask their doctor first.

Take home message
Massage should be provided by a trained professional with knowledge in working with people with cancer and cancer survivors. Generally, gentle massage and reiki can be meet the needs of cancer patients without ill effect.

Be sure to let your healthcare provider know you are receiving massage. Remember that your caregivers can be instructed in certain gentle soft techniques that may be just as effective.

Don’t rely on massage treatment alone and delay conventional medical care for cancer. This may have serious health consequences.


NIH articles