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Massage for Cancer

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Updated May 31, 2012

What Is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy involves rubbing and kneading the superficial layers of muscle to stimulate circulation and relieve tension.

Popular types of massage therapy include Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, and aromatherapy massage.

Use of Massage Therapy in Cancer Treatment

Many physicians suggest using massage therapy as a complement to cancer treatment. Considered helpful in decreasing the stress and anxiety associated with cancer, massage therapy is also recommended as a means of easing cancer-related pain.

Although massage is typically administered by licensed massage therapists, caregivers can also be trained in certain massage techniques.

Benefits of Massage for Cancer Patients

While there's no evidence that massage therapy can stop cancer's growth or spread, a number of studies have shown that massage may offer these benefits for people coping with cancer:

1) Better Quality of Life

After receiving one 30-minute massage a week for three consecutive weeks, participants in a 2009 study (all of whom were undergoing breast cancer treatment) reported improvements in quality of life and functioning. Massage therapy also appeared to help study members sleep better.

2) Anxiety Relief

In a 2004 review of 10 studies on aromatherapy massage, researchers determined that the treatment may help improve psychological wellbeing and lessen anxiety among people with cancer.

3) Stronger Immune System

Massage may boost the number of natural killer cells and lymphocytes (both known to play an important role in immune defense) in women with breast cancer, according to a 2004 study. After receiving half-hour massages three times a week for five weeks, the study members also experienced a decrease in anxiety, depression, and hostility, as well as an increase in levels of dopamine and serotonin (two mood-regulating brain chemicals).

4) Less Pain

In a 2002 study of 41 people undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, massage was associated with decreased pain (in addition to less anxiety and better sleep quality).

Massage Precautions for People with Cancer

It's critical for people with cancer to consult their physicians before undergoing massage therapy. A few concerns to keep in mind:

  • Massage may be uncomfortable for people who have received radiation therapy.
  • Manipulation of bone in an area of cancer metastasis could cause a fracture.
  • People undergoing chemotherapy may be more vulnerable to bruising.
  • Sources:

    Fellowes D, Barnes K, Wilkinson S. "Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004;(2):CD002287.

    Hernandez-Reif M, Ironson G, Field T, Hurley J, Katz G, Diego M, Weiss S, Fletcher MA, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, Burman I. "Breast cancer patients have improved immune and neuroendocrine functions following massage therapy." Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2004 57(1):45-52.

    Smith MC, Kemp J, Hemphill L, Vojir CP. "Outcomes of therapeutic massage for hospitalized cancer patients." Journal of Nursing Scholarship 2002;34(3):257-62.

    Sturgeon M, Wetta-Hall R, Hart T, Good M, Dakhil S. "Effects of therapeutic massage on the quality of life among patients with breast cancer during treatment." Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2009 15(4):373-80.

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