Massage Therapy for People with Cancer

Benefits and Risk of Massage Therapy for Cancer Patients

woman receiving a massage
How might massage therapy benefit people with cancer, and what are some precautions?. Commons/User Nick Webb

What exactly is massage therapy, what are the benefits for people living with cancer, and what cautions should be kept in mind?

Many cancer centers are now offering massage therapy as a complementary treatment for cancer. In this sense, massage is not used as a treatment for cancer, per se -- such as chemotherapy or surgery would be -- but as a method of helping with the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment.

 The term "integrative treatment" refers to the practice of combining traditional cancer treatments with "alternative" treatments and is an approach many cancer centers are now adopting.

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage is defined as the rubbing of skin and muscles in the body to give someone a sense of well-being. Many of us are familiar with traditional back rubs, and massage therapy isn’t that much different -- in the sense that it simply feels good to most of us.

But when it comes to massage therapy techniques, there are many different forms. Some forms of massage therapy used in people with cancer include Swedish massage, aromatherapy massage, and deep tissue massage. (Deep tissue massage is not usually used during active cancer treatment, but may be used to help with chronic pain and limited motion due to scar tissue after treatment is done.)

General Health Benefits of Massage Therapy

Researchers believe massage may be helpful for both its physical and psychological benefits.

Physically, massage may:

  • Decrease inflammation and swelling
  • Improve circulation
  • Help sore muscles
  • Lower the level of stress hormones in your blood

Emotionally, massage may:

  • Help people relax
  • Cause the release of chemicals in the body (endorphins) that help with pain
  • Provide a distracting experience that helps take our minds off of pain

    Benefits for Cancer Survivors

    Intuitively, it seems that massage should benefit those of us living with cancer. Physically it can feel good, and it’s hard to beat the emotional calm and serenity as we’re pampered by someone devoted to helping us. But what do the studies say about benefits specifically for cancer patients? Some of them include:

    • Lessened chemotherapy-related nausea - A 2016 study looking at combining conventional and alternative therapies for cancer found that the combination of dexamethasone, massage therapy, and ginger for chemotherapy-induced nausea worked better than some other combinations of conventional and alternative treatments.
    • Decreased stress and anxiety
    • Lessened cancer fatigue
    • Improved sleep
    • Improved quality of life
    • Control of pain related to cancer - In one study, massage therapy brought about immediate pain relief for those suffering with cancer. While the benefits didn’t last too long, massage was found to be a safe and effective way of controlling pain. And while massage therapy may not replace pain medications for those with cancer, it may allow people to use lower doses of pain medications. Another recent study found that massage provided significant pain relief for people living with cancer that had spread to their bones.

      Cautions and Risks

      It’s important to talk with your oncologist before beginning massage therapy –- especially if you have had recent surgery, or are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.  Some possible risks include:

      • Infection – if your white blood cell count is low due to chemotherapy
      • Bruising
      • Risk of fracture if you have bone metastases (spread of cancer to bone), or are on medications that can weaken your bones
      • Skin breakdown from rubbing – especially during radiation therapy
      • Reactions to the lotions or oils used
      • Rarely, the risk of disrupting an undiagnosed blood clot in the leg
      • There is a theoretical risk that if a cancerous tumor itself is massaged, it could promote spreading

      How to Get Started

      If your oncologist agrees that massage could be helpful for you, ask her about massage therapists available at your cancer institution. Many large cancer centers have massage therapists on staff. In addition, many centers also offer classes to help your loved ones learn how to do massage for you when you return home.

      Further Reading:

      Information on Other Forms of Alternative Treatments Helpful for Cancer Patients:

      Specific Alternative Therapies:  The following articles discuss several complementary alternative therapies specifically with respect to studies looking at their effects for people living with cancer.


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      Corbin, L. Safety and efficacy of massage therapy for patients with cancer. Cancer Control. 2005. 12(3):158-64.

      Jane, S. et al. Effects of massage on pain, mood status, relaxation, and sleep in Taiwanese patients with metastatic bone pain: a randomized clinical trial. Pain. 2011. 152(10):2432-42.

      Listing, M. et al. Massage therapy reduces physical discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. Psychooncology. 2009. 18(12):1290-9.

      Listing, M. et al. The efficacy of classical massage on stress perception and cortisol following primary treatment of breast cancer. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2010. 13(2):165-73.

      Robison, J., and C. Smith. Therapeutic Massage During Chemotherapy and/or Biotherapy Infusions: Patient Perceptions of Pain, Fatigue, Nausea, Anxiety, and Satisfaction. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2016. 20(2):E34+-40.

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      Sheikhi, M., Ebadi, A., Talaeizadeh, A., and H. Rahmani. Alternative Methods to Treat Nausea and Vomiting from Cancer Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy Research and Practice. 2015. 2015:818759

      Toth, M. et al. Massage therapy for patients with metastatic cancer: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2013. 19(7):650-6.

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