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Oncology Massage: Hands-On Support For Cancer Patients

Updated on January 28, 2011

Oncology Massage

Living with cancer can be a time of extreme pain, discomfort and emotional trauma. Stress and tension, experienced by most cancer patients, is counter-productive to healing processes. Additionally, many experience discomfort and physical side effects from their cancer therapy. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery all have unpleasant side-effects. Oncology massage is a type of massage that has been specifically designed to take into consideration the needs of a client suffering from cancer. In the past, therapists were reluctant to treat patients with cancer, as it was once believed that the effects of increasing circulation from massage could perhaps cause the breakdown of tumors causing them to metastasise, spreading the cancer cells. However, advancement in the knowledge of how cancer cells spread has shown this is not true. Now the benefits of massage can be happily received by oncology patients as part of their care. Whether receiving treatment, in the last stages of life or in recovery from cancer, there is a role for massage in cancer treatment plans.


Oncology massage is a gentle, non-invasive and comfort-orientated approach that can be offered to anyone regardless of the severity of their condition. There are however, some precautions to take when massaging people with cancer, these are all considered in the approach of oncology massage. Following is an outline of important points to consider in cancer patients:

▪ Lymphedema-There is an increased risk of lymphedema in cancer patients, (the build up of fluid in the limbs).Therapists trained in oncology massage are knowledgeable in protocols to take during massage of a client with impaired lymph nodes, and use special lymph-draining techniques.

▪ Sensitivity- Patients may experience increased dermal sensitivity and fragile skin, and this can make massage uncomfortable or painful. The strokes used in oncology massage are gentle and light, and avoid pressure which could cause pain or discomfort.

▪ Impaired Immunity- Areas of surgery and intravenous sites should also be avoided, until healed, to reduce risk of infection.

▪ Tumours- In spite of current knowledge and awareness showing no connection with massage causing the spreading of cancer in the body, care is taken by the practitioner to avoid direct massage on tumours.


Massage in cancer patients has undoubted benefits and positive effects on immune response and emotional well-being.  Studies have shown oncology massage to relieve nausea in the initial few days of chemotherapy, to offer significant pain relief in breast and lung cancer, and also increase feelings of well-being.  In one study of patients with bone marrow cancer, those receiving massage were recorded as having lower blood pressure than those who did not.  Benefits to the immune response, increased blood count, lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety are all advantages of oncology massage, as well as helping with feelings of alienation that patients can suffer, from being subject to medical and surgical routine.  The following are side-effects of cancer treatment that massage can alleviate:

▪    Digestive complaints (nausea, diarrhoea, constipation)
    ▪    Lack of appetite
    ▪    Sleep disruption (insomnia)
    ▪    Fatigue/ Exhaustion
    ▪    Pain
    ▪    Low blood count

Psychological benefits

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of living with cancer, is the way patients describe their feelings towards their body.  Often the language patients use reflects their feeling of being prodded, cut, poisoned and subjected to all kinds of procedures.  This can become very alienating to a person with cancer, and many can suffer depression as a result.  The power of touch is enough to overcome these feelings and changing the focus of healing towards the person and their well-being, rather than a battle to get rid of a cancer can have a hugely positive impact on the overall prognosis and quality of life.


Treatments in oncology massage are very much tailored to the individual and will depend on the health and cancer therapy of the patient. Some massage therapists have undertaken post-graduate study to better equip them to massage cancer patients.

Below are some ways a massage may differ from the usual massage treatments therapists offer:

▪ More detailed health history form (your therapist will ask questions relating to your cancer and what treatment you are receiving)
Lymphatic Drainage technique (your massage may include Lymph draining techniques on areas where the lymphatic system is compromised.)
▪ Shorter treatment time (the length of the treatment may be shorter than usual as part of a gentler approach, and to maintain energy levels)
▪ Acupressure/ Reflexology technique (these techniques may be incorporated to have an non-invasive action on a deeper level.)
▪ More frequent sessions (whilst confronting serious side effects, it may be suggested you have more frequent sessions)
▪ Lighter touch (Due to sensitivity during cancer therapy the massage may be gentler)
▪ Altered position (if you are experiencing pain or sensitivity, the practitioner will adjust your position for your comfort.)

Throughout the treatment, your comfort is of primary importance to the therapist. They will use blankets and covers to keep your body warm during the massage, and will use the gentlest pressure and least invasive techniques to offer you the most beneficial and comforting therapy. If you are in anyway uncomfortable always let your massage practitioner know and they will adjust the treatment to suit.


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    • therelaxer profile image

      therelaxer 7 years ago from sydney

      That's right. the whole idea is that the person is helped to feel human again by be being nurtured and their body affirmed.

    • DaKingsKid profile image

      DaKingsKid 7 years ago

      Sound like it would help an individual to relax and recoup for the next be-rage of test or sessions.