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Touch, Massage Relieve Symptoms in Cancer Patients


Never underestimate the power of touch and massage, especially when it comes to cancer patients. A recent study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) finds that family caregivers can significantly reduce the suffering experienced by cancer patients at home when they administer simple touch and massage techniques.

Touch therapy and simple massage are practices that just about anyone can perform. According to the study’s principle investigator, William Collinge, PhD, president of Collinge & Associates, these are “among the most effective forms of supportive care in cancer,” yet because of cost or availability limitations, most patients do not have access to professional practitioners in these methods.

The goal of the NCI study was to determine whether family caregivers who received home-based instructions on touch and massage techniques could provide these services and some of the benefits to cancer patients that professionals can give. William Collinge noted that “It appears they can.”

The study involved a group of 97 patients who represented 21 types of cancer and all stages of the disease, and their caregivers (e.g., spouses, adult children, parents, siblings, friends). The caregivers received instructions from a 78-minute DVD instructional program that was accompanied by an illustrated manual. The study was conducted in three different cities.

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In the study, couples (a cancer patient and caregiver) were randomly assigned to either a group that used the touch and massage DVD program or to an attention control group. Caregivers who had the DVD were asked to apply the instruction for at least 20 minutes, three or more times per week for one month. Caregivers in the control group were asked to read to their patient for the same amounts of time.

Both before the sessions began and after the study was done, the patients were asked to complete report card that rated their levels of pain, fatigue, stress/anxiety, depression, nausea, and other symptoms. The results showed that having companionship reduced symptoms significantly in both groups, but patients who received touch and massage therapy reported a much greater improvement.

While symptoms were reduced from 12 to 28 percent among patients in the control group, massage from a caregiver resulted in reductions ranging from 29 to 44 percent. The most significant improvement was on stress/anxiety (44% reduction), followed by pain (34%), fatigue (32%), depression (31%), and nausea (29%). Patients who reported an “other” symptom such as headache reported a 42 percent reduction with massage.

The benefits were not just for the cancer patients. Caregivers reported that when they used touch and massage therapy, it helped them feel more confident and comfortable in their role as helpers. Collinge noted that for caregivers, providing touch and massage therapy for their patients “gives a way to make a difference for the patient, and at the same time increase their own satisfaction and effectiveness as a caregiver. It also appears to strengthen the relationship bond.”

The DVD program, entitled “Touch, Caring and Cancer: Simple Instruction for Family and Friends,” was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute’s Caring and Cancer Program. The program is now available to the public, cancer treatment centers, and advocacy groups in English, Spanish, and Chinese through Collinge & Associates.

Collinge & Associates