Massage Therapy: Helping People to Live With Cancer

(As printed on the Victoria Cancer Resource Center Website, Spring 2007 edition)

Human touch is one of the most sacred ways we can connect as human beings; it allows us to move beyond the physical barriers we create and respond to each other in a deeply nourishing and healing way.  As the number of cases of cancer increase, there also exists an increased need to connect on this very human level.  Touch given in a therapeutic and intentional manner can affect an individual physically, emotionally, and spiritually; it can soothe physical pain; and it can also create space for the mind to come to a place of stillness and acceptance.  Through simply being present with an individual and offering comfort, not ignoring their pain or trying to fix their condition, an environment for a deeper level of healing is fostered.

When I began giving massage therapy to individuals with cancer, it increased my understanding of human suffering and the ways in which it is a shared suffering.  I have also witnessed the incredible impact touch can have on an individual when one meets them in this place of suffering.  My hands have made contact with a person and the separation between us seems to dissolve. I have physically felt and seen peoples bodies soften and rest into the support of the massage and my hands.  I have watched their breath become deeper and more restful as they respond while the massage helps to soothe their pain – on a physical and an emotional level.  It is in these moments that I truly understand the phenomenal power of touch.

Massage is a safe therapy to receive with cancer, however this does not negate that there are important considerations when receiving treatment.  Scientific research has shown that metastasis, or the spread of cancer in the body, is a complicated process, which involves more than increased circulation or mechanical stimulation.  It was a long held belief that massage could contribute to the spread of cancer, however over the last decade, many studies have been done which support the use of massage therapy, as a complementary therapy specifically for an individual who has cancer. Debra Curties explores and discusses this area of concern in depth in her book Massage therapy and Cancer, 1999.  With careful modifications, a well-trained and educated therapist can provide massage during a cancer diagnosis, during medical treatment, when in remission, through palliative care with a terminal diagnosis and through survivorship.  The benefits, which I have seen first hand, are invaluable. Reflecting on my clinical experience, as well as reference to the studies that have successfully been done, massage has helped people with cancer with pain management, anxiety, depression, disconnection from the body and/or from people, self esteem, body image, muscular tension, stiffness and pain, nausea, fatigue and feelings of isolation or loneliness. It can also help with the emotional impact of a diagnosis of cancer on the mind.

When receiving massage therapy, your therapist would need to be aware of the location of the cancer, as deep techniques directly local to a tumor are contraindicated and inappropriate. It is a massage therapist’s goal to reintegrate the body and to work gentlyand with caution.  Your therapist would need to plan your treatment avoiding any local or regional pressure, in areas affected by cancer. Another very important consideration is any medical treatments you are undergoing. Such as; surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, and adapt the treatment according to your energy levels, side effects, sites of involvement, and where you are in your treatment.  General guidelines of important areas to discuss with your therapist are as follows: (adapted from Tracy Walton’s “Massage therapy for people with cancer:  Fear and Healing”)

  • Whether/how/where cancer is currently manifesting
  • Current or past cancer treatments (surgery/radiation/chemo/bone marrow transplant/etc.), side effects, complications, and discuss how this will be considered in the massage treatment
  • Discuss lymph node involvement and risk of lymphodema
  • Discuss medications and their effects, cancer and non-cancer related
  • Discuss if dialogue with your medical doctor would be appropriate and necessary, based on your health history, status, and stage of cancer.
  • A continued update to any changes in your health is essential, and it is also necessary to check your response to every massage treatment to ensure it is not adversely affecting the body or it’s ability to heal

This is a simplification and a general look at some key areas that need to be covered when you have cancer or a history of cancer and you’re seeing a massage therapist for the first time. Not all areas noted above will be relevant to everyone, and in other people there will be a need to expand on the complexity of the above information.  When these concerns are discussed openly and honestly between you and your therapist, there will be a greater sense of trust and the treatment can proceed with more confidence, from both the therapist’s and the patient’s point of view.

Often it is important to open up the lines of communication between you, your massage therapist and your medical doctor, simply to provide you with the best possible care.  The most important element is your comfort discussing the changing needs of your health with your therapist so that you will receive the most benefit from your treatments.  Any type of illness will affect the energy levels of an individual. Gayle MacDonald, (who is a wonderful source of information on massage and cancer) calls this a “new normal” of energy.  I have seen this first hand, as the body goes through an adaptation phase, and its innate resources focus on the illness and the changes in the body.  What may have been okay for your body before the cancer was detected, may not be okay now, even if you have completed a course of treatment and your cancer is in remission.  Treatments will generally start quite conservatively, to understand and get to know your bodies “new normal”, gauging your response after each and every session.  It is vitally important to be patient with your body as it will be continually adapting to the disease process and the treatments administered.

The considerations I have mentioned are not meant to frighten an individual from seeking massage, but rather it is my hope that they will encourage more people to consider thoughtful forms of bodywork to assist the healing process. Massage has time and time again been revealed to be a truly beneficial complementary therapy as part of a totally supportive cancer care plan. However, the considerations do need to be taken seriously, as cancer is a very serious and real condition. The impacts on an individual both, physically and mentally can contribute to one of the scariest, most taxing and dehumanizing times in a persons life. The main focus of massage for someone with a cancer diagnosis is to offer a safe place to rest, to offer comfort, to offer positive and very human care, and to help with symptom relief specific to the individual.

Every person is unique, and every person’s story is unique, which needs to be deeply honored regardless of the type of cancer or the type of treatment a person is going through.  The experiences and the stories I have been privileged to share with people through my hands and my heart have shaped me as a massage therapist and also how I look at life.  The gift of touch is shared, as is the suffering, and connecting in this way can pave the path for true compassion and healing.  It is my hope that we as a society will not continue to embrace the fear of the unknown or the fear of illness, but rather embrace the mystery and humanness of life.  There is a sacred element in sharing this journey with others through touch, and in times of serious illness the power behind this sacredness has the potential to grow.  The people that I have worked with have allowed me to integrate the beauty and the intuition of massage, but also to deeply respect the science behind massage, the body and disease and to see how massage can positively affect a person when the bridge between the science and the intuitive element of massage are joined in a mindful way.  I hope through reading this article that more people will seek out massage to help them on their journey through cancer.  In my own clinical practice I have only witnessed the benefits for the body, the mind and the soul.

Copyright © Inspired Life Health Centre Inc.
Reproduction of this document or any portion thereof without prior written consent is prohibited.

Recommended Reading / References

  • MacDonald, Gayle. Medicine Hands: Massage Therapy for People with Cancer, Findhorn, Scotland:  Findhorn Press, 1999
  • Curties, Debra. Massage Therapy and Cancer. Moncton, NB:  Curties-Overzet Publications, 1999
  • Curties, Debra.  “Could massage therapy promote cancer metastasis?” Massage Therapy Journal, Fall 2000, 39 (3): 83-88
  • (Tracy Walton is a huge inspiration to me in my practice.  She has written many articles, contributed richly to the massage therapy profession and teaches courses to massage therapists on massage therapy for individuals with cancer, she is also actively involved in research in helping to support massage therapy as a treatment for individuals with cancer)
  • Hernandez – Reif M, Field T., et. al. “Natural Killer cells and lymphocytes increase in women with breast cancer following massage therapy”. International Journal of Neuroscience 2005; 115 (4): 495-510
  • Cassileth, and Vickers “ Massage therapy for Symptom Control: Outcome study at a major cancer center”, J. Pain Symptom Management 2004; 28 (3): 244-249 (Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – massage created a decrease in pain, fatigue, anxiety, nausea, depression)
  • Hernandez – Reif M, Ironson G., et. al. “Breast cancer patients have improved immune and neuroendocrine functions following massage therapy “. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2004; 57: 45-52
  • Post-White, et. al. “Therapeutic Massage and Healing Touch improve symptoms in cancer”.  Integrative Cancer Therapies 2003; 2(4): 332-344 (230 patients – decreased anxiety and the use of pain medications)
  • Smith, Reeder, et. al.  “ Outcomes of touch therapies during bone marrow transplant”.  Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2003; 9(1): 40-49 (massage showed decreased neurological complications with chemotherapy, and created increased comfort to patients during treatment)
  • Grealish et al.  “Foot massage: a nursing intervention to modify the distressing symptoms of pain and nausea in patients hospitalized with cancer”, Cancer Nursing, 23 (3): 237-243, 2000

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