Massage for Cancer Patients and Survivors

by | Jun 30, 2022

The common consensus with massage around cancer is fear that the cancer may spread. In truth, there is no research or evidence to show this is the case. Some people may worry that massage can spread cancer cells via the lymphatic system – the body’s immune system. Our lymphatic system is a network of nodes and vessels through which lymph and lymphatic fluid flows. Lymphatic circulation occurs naturally when muscles contract and compress lymph vessels to force the movement of lymph. Gentle massage does not increase this lymphatic circulation any more than exercise or general activity, such as gardening. Light and relaxing massage can safely be given to clients at any stage of their cancer journey. Massage therapy can help with many side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and there are both physical and emotional benefits to having massage therapy treatment:

Helping Prevent Neuropathy – Massage therapy can help with many of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation – such as peripheral neuropathy 

Relieving Pain – Pain is the most common and debilitating symptom among cancer patients. While exact prevalence of pain varies depending on the type and stage of cancer, research shows that pain affects 50% of those undergoing cancer therapies and up to 90% with advanced cancer experience pain. Massage therapy shows promise for reducing pain intensity and severity among cancer populations.

Alleviating Lymphedema – Lymphedema is one of the most common conditions developed because of cancer treatment causing swelling of the arms and legs that can be painful. Lymphatic drainage has shown some promise to patients dealing with this condition. If nodes have been removed, it is important for patients to have the extremities drained from time to time to keep the lymphatic vessels open and working.

Helping Lift Depression – Depression is not an uncommon occurrence when dealing with cancer or even surviving the disease. At a time when a patient is dealing with a lot of unknowns or worrying about possible outcomes, changes in mood can be expected. However, that doesn’t make depression any less troublesome and fortunately some research shows massage therapy may help depression and mood disorders in cancer patients.

Among those, other benefits to massage therapy may include:

  • Improve energy
  • Reduce anxiety and stress levels
  • Help decrease nausea 
  • Ease tension throughout the body, muscle soreness and stiffness
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Help reduce insomnia or improve quality of sleep

Another thing to consider following a surgery is the massage of scar tissue. This is applicable to any surgery such as knee replacement, cesarean section or repair surgery but in this case surgical sites where cancer was removed, including chest and mastectomy surgeries. Any type of surgical incision will result in the formation of scar. In general, the larger the incision the greater amount of scarring you can expect to occur. Simply put, massage performed after the incisions have sufficiently healed can help reduce the size and appearance of scars.

The benefits of massaging scar tissue after surgery include:

  • Prevent the buildup of excess scar tissue which can cause muscle stiffness and weakness
  • Drains excess fluid to reduce swelling
  • Improves blood flow to the area promoting tissue remodelling 
  • Reduces itching at the surgical wound site
  • Increases scar pliability
  • Helps regain sensation in the area
  • Flattens the scar and assists in reducing its visibility 
  • Helps prevent postural changes as the body heals around the scarring 

       It is well understood that there may be some emotional sensitivity, trauma, and vulnerability around surgical scarring and incision sites especially when going through such a difficulty journey such as cancer. As much as a massage therapist can help, a client may have aversion to being addressed over scar tissue. If this is the case, a massage therapist can always educate a patient on how to self massage, or instruct techniques for a trusted partner or friend can use so the patient can still experience the benefits.
       If you or someone you know is currently experiencing cancer, massage therapy is not something to shy away from. Research has once again, shown no evidence to be harmful to patients in any stage of their cancer journey. It can be a very complimentary treatment throughout an individual’s process of healing. Inquire with any concerns or questions and find out how massage can be effective and customized to each patient’s needs throughout their journey.

Melissa Andre, RMT

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