Massage involves moving (manipulating) muscles and rubbing or stroking soft tissues of the body. There are many different styles of massage. Oncology massage therapists are specially trained to adjust pressure, speed, duration and direction of strokes to provide a safe session for a person with cancer.
All styles of massage aim to promote deep relaxation in tissue by applying pressure to muscles and pressure points. This helps to release both muscular and emotional tension. The style of massage used for people during or after cancer treatment will depend on the treatment they’re having. It may be helpful at any stage – from those newly diagnosed to people who have finished their cancer treatment.
Over the years, there has been a general concern that massage can increase the risk of cancer cells spreading to other parts of the body. However, there is no evidence that this happens.
Some types of massage can help reduce the symptoms of lymphoedema (swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid). This is called manual lymphatic drainage.
What to expect
Massage usually occurs in a warm, quiet room. It can be given while lying on a massage table or sitting in a chair. The selected and recommended therapist uses a variety of strokes on different parts of the body. When performing massage on a person with cancer, our therapists may need to adjust their pressure and avoid certain areas of the body.
Some styles of massage are done with you fully clothed; others require you to undress to your underwear so the therapist can use oil to move their hands over your skin more easily. The therapist may place pillows under different parts of your body so they’re supported. Let the therapist know if you need anything to feel more comfortable, such as a change in pressure or another blanket. You may like to close your eyes during the massage.
What is the evidence?
Many scientific studies have shown that oncology massage may help manage symptoms such as stress, pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people who have had chemotherapy or surgery for cancer.
Massage concerns for people with cancer
Chemotherapy – This treatment affects the whole body. If you have a chemotherapy port, massage should not be done in this area. Some people who have chemotherapy experience tingling in their hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy), or may find they bruise or bleed easily, so we do not recommend deep massage.
Radiation therapy – The skin may be sensitive to touch after external radiation therapy. It may look red and appear sunburnt. If you are having radiation therapy, we recommend avoiding massage to the treated area once any skin changes appear or your skin becomes sensitive. Massage oils may make already irritated skin feel worse.
Surgery – Recovery after surgery takes time, and it’s important to avoid massaging the area of the operation until wounds are healed. There are no other medical issues, such as blood clots, infections or trapped pockets of fluid under the skin (seroma). Gentle massaging with lotion can provide comfort and support.
Risk of lymphoedema – If you’ve had lymph nodes removed from the neck, armpit or groin during diagnosis or treatment, or if you’ve had radiation therapy to these areas, you may be at risk of developing lymphoedema. We recommend that you consider seeing a trained lymphoedema therapist for massage therapy. If you have developed lymphoedema, massage therapies such as manual lymphatic drainage may help control the symptoms.