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Manipulating muscle and connective tissue to stimulate healing and provide a sense of well-being was first practiced by many ancient civilizations. However, traditional massage therapy for cancer patients is extremely controversial because the deep kneading action can actually create other conditions. Cancer patients who want to try massage as an alternative therapy should work with an oncology massage therapist who has been trained in the handling of a body dealing with cancer and cancer treatments.

How Does Oncology Massage Therapy Work?

The basic bodywork techniques used in oncology massage are designed to meet the special needs of cancer patients. The goal is to promote healing while preventing the creation of additional medical issues. The development of this variation of massage therapy specifically targeted for cancer patients is necessary because cancer patients:

  • Have a compromised immune system
  • Are at risk for developing lymphedema, swelling caused by the buildup of excess lymph (a type of body fluid) in the tissues
  • May be experiencing physical side effects from treatment that could be made more severe by massage

Oncology massage includes both reflexology and acupressure techniques to strengthen both the mind and the body. Reflexology is a method of applying pressure to zones on the feet or hands that are believed to correspond to organs within the body. The therapist uses specific thumb, finger and hand movements to achieve the desired response. Acupressure uses the traditional acupuncture points and energy meridians to restore balance within the body. The difference between acupressure and acupuncture is that acupressure employs the fingers instead of needles. The level of pressure that is applied is customized to the individual patient.

The session lasts approximately 30 minutes and the patient may find it necessary to have more than one weekly session.

Does Massage Spread Cancer?

There is a common misconception that stimulating the circulatory system by massage will cause cancer to spread. Here is what the American Massage Therapy Association says on the subject:

“The concern that increasing circulation via massage will cause the spread of cancer is unfounded. Cancer can spread with little or no activity, such as sleeping, breathing, eating, walking, etc. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that gentle, light or compassionate touch can be administered safely and effectively, provided that no direct pressure or massage is applied to the traumatized area affected by disease.”

However, the Association adds this warning:

“Deep massage is always contraindicated (not recommended) in people with active cancer or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. Massage only will tax a system already overloaded by the trauma of cancer and treatment, and it can induce an inflammatory response. Therefore, it can’t be stressed enough that the therapist must take a good client history, adjust the depth of touch, and select the appropriate touch modality, with the individual client in mind. Cancer massage guidelines should always be top of mind.”

Research Shows that Massage Therapy May Ease Pain in Cancer Patients

In a study titled Massage therapy versus simple touch to improve pain and mood in patients with advanced cancer: a randomized trial, published in the September 16, 2008 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers observed that both massage and touch therapy provided significant improvement in pain relief and a decrease in physical and emotional distress. The immediate improvements were greater with massage therapy, but no evaluation was made as to whether these improvements were sustained over the long-term.

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