Using Massage During the Treatment of Cancer
by Jessica Chew
Most massage therapists are not trained in cancer massage in school; when in school, I was told not to massage individuals with cancer at all. As of 2011, the American Cancer Society encourages medical professionals to explain the option of massage therapy to cancer patients. They recognize research demonstrating that massage may relieve stress, anxiety, pain (primarily in the muscles), and fatigue.
Today massage is performed in hospital settings, during chemotherapy, and outpatient settings. It is strongly recommended by Tracy Walton, a researcher who studied professional and caregiver massage funded by the National Cancer Institute, that massage therapists receive training prior to working with individuals with cancer.
Massage therapy is believed to relieve stress, anxiety, nausea, and potentially pain relief. Two well-known cancer training programs are Tracy Walton’s program and the Peregrine Institute of Oncology Massage Training. When taking a history of a cancer patient it is important to find out what type of treatment they have had (ex. Chemotherapy, radiation) and if lymph nodes have been taken out for diagnostic purposes. This information will affect how you will proceed with the massage.
Massage for cancer patients should be very light in nature. Cancer patients are often receiving strong medical treatments, which places significant stress on their bodies. Light pressure provides therapeutic therapy to individuals, especially since many visitors may avoid touching them at all. Stronger pressure may increase fatigue as their bodies are already weakened. Strong pressure, especially if lymph nodes were taken out, may put the individual at risk for lymphodema. Therefore it is important to know how to direct blood and lymph flow toward existing lymph nodes (Gayle McDonald’s Massage for People Living with Cancer Course).
When someone is declared cancer-free, it is recommended that light pressure be continued due to the stress placed on their bodies by medical treatment. It is recommended that light pressure be continued for years after they are declared cancer-free. Eventually, when increased pressure is applied, it should be done gradually and not suddenly.
I have had the pleasure of working with cancer patients of varying stages. My first client was my father, undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer. He has peripheral neuropathy (pain and pins and needles feeling) in his feet. Massaging his feet or giving him a reflexology session helped to lessen the uncomfortable feeling in his feet, if only for thirty minutes. As he recovered and was declared cancer-free, he remembered the deep tissue sessions I gave him prior to cancer and would ask for “more pressure.” I had to keep telling him he would receive eventually receive deep tissue massages again, but his body was still recovering from the chemotherapy.
I have also had clients that were terminal and given less than 6 months to live. I will say the clients I have had the fortune of massaging are incredibly brave and surprisingly calm. As a terminal or struggling client begins to slow down, massage sessions are shortened. Regardless of the length of time, I have found that most of my patients are very open about talking about anything from their daily life, the ups and downs, and the experiences that could not be explained. They have been gracious for my services and by the end of the session they are very relaxed, yet rejuvenated upon conclusion.
Currently there is no recognized cancer massage certification. However there are a number of organizations that individuals who have completed programs may belong to such as the Society for Oncology Massage.
MacDonald G. Easing cancer’s side effects with massage. Coping Jan/Feb 2000:44.
MacDonald G. Bodywork for cancer patients: the need for a less-demanding approach. Massage & Bodywork Jun/Jul 2005:16-26.
Myers C, Walton T, Small B. The value of massage therapy in cancer care. Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America 2008;22:649-660.
Walton T. Chemotherapy and massage:11 questions to ask your client. Massage & Bodywork May/June 2011:40-9.
Jessica Chew, BA, LMT #1722
Jessica Chew received a BA in molecular biology, with biology honors, from Kenyon College and her certification in massage therapy from Therapeutic Massage Institute in Decatur, Alabama. She has been a practicing licensed massage therapist with national certification (NCBTMB) for six years and specializes in pain relief massage.
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