Massage and cancer

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Massage is one of the oldest therapies in existence. It is now often offered as part of cancer care in hospital wards, hospices and some GP surgeries.

Massage is a form of structured or therapeutic touch which can be used to relax, to relieve muscle pain and tension, and to bring comfort through contact with another human being. There are many different types of massage therapy. Some types are soft and gentle; other types are more vigorous and possibly uncomfortable.

Massage can help to reduce feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and despair. Some people worry that massage could cause spread of cancer cells, but research has shown that it is safe for people with cancer to have massage. However, it is important that the massage therapist avoids any area affected by the cancer.

Relatives or friends can be taught to massage the person who is ill, which can reduce anxiety and bring comfort to both people. Massage can be a form of communication between the massager and the patient, as well as relieving pain and muscle tension. As long as you are careful to avoid wounds or scars, vein thromboses (blood clots) and areas of tenderness, and to be particularly gentle if the cancer has spread to the bones, massage for people with cancer is very relaxing.

You can get more information about massage and finding a trained massage therapist from the General Council for Massage Therapy.

This page tells you about using massage therapy when you have cancer.  There is information on

What is massage therapy?
Massage therapy is a system of treatment that works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body - to relax you mentally and physically.  It has been used for centuries.  Massage may concentrate on the muscles or on the acupuncture points.
There are several types of massage

Massage techniques can range from being soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk - and sometimes even a bit uncomfortable.  Gentler forms of massage such as aromatherapy affect your nerve endings, possibly releasing chemicals called endorphins and reducing sensations of pain.  Stronger methods, such as Swedish massage, aim to stimulate your blood circulation and lymphatic system, relax muscles and ease knotted tissues that can cause pain and stiffness.  Therapists may focus on your whole body, or concentrate on a specific part of the body such as your head, neck or shoulders.  Some types of massage such as shiatsu may also gently stretch parts of your body to release stiffness.

Why people with cancer use massage

As with many types of complementary therapies, one of the main reasons that people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good, and is a way they feel they can help themselves.  Massage for people with cancer is promoted as a natural way to help you relax and cope with
Generally, massage therapy can help lift your mood, improve your sleep and enhance your well being.  There is some evidence to help support these benefits.

Some massage therapists, or people who use massage, also claim that massage therapy can
There is no scientific evidence to support these claims.

Evidence to support the use of massage in people with cancer  
A UK study in 2007 found that that aromatherapy massage reduced anxiety and depression in people with cancer.  The benefit only lasted a few weeks, though.   A large American study published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1,300 people with cancer, over 3 years.  The types of massage used were
Those in hospital had 20 minute massage sessions, while those treated as outpatients had 60 minute sessions.  The study found that, over all, massage therapy greatly reduced these symptoms in all patients
The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60 minute sessions.  Swedish massage and light touch massage appeared to help more than reflexology.

Another American study of 230 people with cancer having chemotherapy showed that massage therapy and healing touch helped reduce anxiety, fatigue and mood upsets in some patients.

The Cochrane Collaboration carried out a systematic review in 2004 of the studies on aromatherapy and massage for relieving symptoms in people with cancer. The review pulled together the published results of all trials investigating aromatherapy massage for people with cancer to draw its conclusions.
The review concluded that massage and aromatherapy massage did help people feel better emotionally in the short term.  These therapies may also have an effect on physical symptoms.  But we need much larger trials, and a longer follow up period after trials, before we know if aromatherapy adds to the effects of massage.  You can read the Cochrane Review ‘Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer’ in full on the Cochrane Collaboration website.

The CancerHelp UK sections on aromatherapyreflexology and shiatsu contain information on the evidence to support the use of these types of massage therapy.

There is more information about complementary therapy research in the what’s new in complementary therapies section of CancerHelp UK.

What having massage therapy involves

On your first visit for a massage, the therapist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history.  If they are concerned that massage may interfere with your health or any medicines you are on, they may ask if they can contact your GP.  This is just to check that your GP is happy for you to have massage.  In general, it is rare that your doctor will say no.  But there may be situations where your doctor recommends that you don’t have massage.

If you have shiatsu massage you normally lie on soft mats on the floor, fully clothed.  With most other massage therapies, you will lie on a massage couch (table) for your treatment.  You will need to take off your clothes, except for your underwear.  Your therapist will then cover you in a gown or large towels, exposing only the parts of your body that they are working on.  If you are having a whole body treatment you will lie face down for the first half, and on your back for the rest of the treatment.

Most massage sessions usually last an hour, but this can depend on your therapist.  Your therapist might play some relaxing music during your massage.  The amount of pressure your therapist applies when massaging you can vary greatly between the types of massages.  It is important that you let your therapist know if you feel uncomfortable and want them to stop at any time.  However, most people say that having a massage is very relaxing and soothing.

Remember - your therapist should never massage your genital area or touch you in what you feel is a sexual way.  If you are uncomfortable at any time during your massage you can stop the session and leave. There is information about stopping a therapy or changing therapists in the about complementary and alternative therapies section of CancerHelp UK.

Possible side effects

Most people don’t have any side effects from having a massage.  You may feel a bit light headed, tired or thirsty afterwards.  Your massage therapist may offer you a glass of water when your treatment has finished.  They should not hurry you to get up and leave until you feel comfortable.  Massage therapists say you should drink plenty of water after your treatment.  This is to get rid of toxins released from body tissues during the massage.

Who shouldn’t use massage therapy

It’s not safe for everyone to have massage therapy.  So always talk to your doctor before using any type of massage therapy, and always make sure your massage therapist is fully qualified. This is especially important if you
People with cancer should avoid very deep massage – gentle is safer. Some people worry that having a massage when you have cancer may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body.  No research has proved this to be true.

If you are having radiotherapy you should avoid massaging the treated area.  And don’t have massage to any area of your body where the skin is broken, bleeding or bruised.

You should also avoid general massage therapy to your arms or legs if they are swollen because of lymphoedema.  However, there is a particular type of massage used for lymphoedema called manual lymphatic drainage or MLD.   This is a very specialised treatment and people who need MLD are referred to a lymphoedema specialist by their doctor. 

The cost of massage therapy treatments

Private massage treatments usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 30 to 90 minute session.  It is very important that you have your treatments with a qualified therapist.  There is information about finding a therapist further down this page.

Many cancer centres and hospitals in the UK now offer patients different types of massage therapy free of charge.  Ask your nurse or doctor if this is an option on the ward or centre where you are having your treatment.  If these therapies aren’t available, they may be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that offers people with cancer complementary therapy treatments free or a reduced cost.

The complementary therapy organisations in the help and support section of CancerHelp UK has a list of organisations that may be able to give you some advice about where to get a massage.

Finding a therapist

At the moment there is no single professional organisation that regulates the massage profession in the UK. Therapists can join several associations, but there is no law to say that they have to.  Nor do they have to finish any specific training.  But most reputable therapists will belong to one of the massage organisations below.

It's vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified to treat you.  The best way to find a reliable therapist is to
CancerHelp UK’s about complementary and alternative therapies section has more information about how to find a reliable therapist, and the questions you should ask.

Useful organisations
There are a few different massage organisations.  The General Council for Massage Therapy is a group of organisations who are working together to develop a common set of practice and training standards.  They aim to have one professional body holding a register of UK massage therapists.  They have details of all the massage therapy organisations that are members on their website.

General Council for Massage Therapy

Phone  0151 430 8199