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Kris Zurek (SNHS) Member of Microscopy Practitioners Association, Holistic Health Therapist

Karen Stewart Holistic Health Therapist

Holistic Health Centre,
Cloonloo, Boyle,
Co. Sligo.

Tel: 071 966 3311
Mobile: 087 972 8044

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Massage For Cancer Patients

Here on this page you will find summary of the studies on massage in people with breast cancer and also other types of cancer.

Good News for cancer sufferers:

Few studies have already shown that massage offers both physical and emotional benefits for women suffering with breast cancer.

In 2003 a study was performed at the University of Minnesota, which compared the effects of massage healing touch (a practice in which the therapist’s hands are above or very lightly touching the body) with the caring presence of a doctor or nurse (without any touch therapies) in 230 people who had cancer. This study found that, while both healing touch and massage lowered anxiety and pain, massage also reduced the need for medication for pain.

At the University of Miami in 2003, a 5-week study looked into massage therapy and progressive muscle relaxation therapy, which were compared in 58 women with Stage I and II breast cancer. Both groups experienced feeling less anxious, and the massage group also reported feeling less depressed.

The massage group also showed increased levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, which helps produce a feeling of well-being.

Additional benefit, for the massage group, was an increase in protective white blood cells that help boost the immune system (called natural killer cells) from the first to the last day of the study.

Breast cancer patients have improved immune and neuroendocrine functions following massage therapy. (study published in J Psychosom Res. 2004 Jul;57(1):45-52.)

There is no evidence that massage can cause an existing cancer to spread.

Important things to consider before booking for massage therapy

If you are currently suffering with breast cancer, it’s important to let your massage therapist know about your diagnosis, treatment, and any symptoms you may have. Massage can be very helpful, but precautions has to be followed. Keep these things in mind:

  • If you’ve just had breast surgery, you should lie on your back for a massage until your wounds are fully healed.
  • Deep tissue massage, or any type of massage that involves strong pressure, should NOT be used if you are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. People undergoing chemotherapy may have a decrease in red and white blood cells, so with deep massage, there is a slight risk of bruising. Gentle massage can be used instead.
  • If you’re currently in the process of receiving radiation ‘treatment’,  your massage therapist should avoid touching any sensitive skin in the treatment area. Massage and massage oils can make already-irritated skin feel much worse. Your therapist should also avoid touching any temporary markings in the corners of the radiation treatment field. If you don’t have skin irritation in the treatment area, any massage to this area should be done very lightly through a soft towel or cloth.
  • If your lymph nodes have been removed, the massage therapist should only use very gentle touch on your affected arm and the area around the underarm.
  • If you have arm lymphedema, the massage therapist should avoid the affected arm and underarm areas completely. Traditional massage therapy can worsen lymphedema. A massage therapist who has experience with breast cancer patients may already know this, but it’s important to make sure he or she understands.
  • If you have arm lymphedema, your arm and underarm area should be treated by a different kind of massage especially for lymphedema, called manual lymphatic drainage.

Additional Studies Confirming Benefits of Massage for Cancer Patients


In 2009 in UK, a review was carried out, looking at 14 trials that used classical massage for symptoms in people with cancer. The researchers suggested that massage can help to reduce symptoms such as pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue).

In 2008 in Taiwan, researchers reviewed 15 studies that used massage to reduce cancer pain. They found that although some studies seemed to show that massage helped, the evidence was unclear due to the poor quality of some studies.

An American review in 2008 looked at 22 studies that used massage to treat pain, tiredness (fatigue) anxiety, nausea, and depression. They also found that it was difficult to be sure that massage worked due to the poor quality of some studies. The strongest evidence was that massage did seem to lower anxiety.

In the UK in 2008 reviewers looked at 10 trials that used massage for people with cancer. They found that the trials suggested that massage could help to reduce anxiety in people with cancer in the short term. It may also reduce some of the physical symptoms of cancer, such as pain and nausea. But again the poor quality of some of the research made it impossible to be sure. This review is currently being carried out again and will include more recent trials of better quality.

Women with breast cancer

In 2011 UK reviewers looked specifically at trials using massage for women with breast cancer. There were 6 trials and the reviewers said that massage seems useful as a supportive therapy. It seemed to help with symptoms of depression, pain and tiredness.

German trial, carried out in 2009, looked at massage therapy for physical discomfort and mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. 86 women took part in the study and half had massage and half did not. Women in the massage group reported less pain, tiredness and discomfort and less mood disturbances. The researchers reported that classical massage seems to be a helpful treatment for women after breast surgery.

People with advanced cancer

In 2011 in Italy researchers looked at the use of massage in people with advanced cancer. They studied 20 trials and felt that massage therapy is a cost effective treatment that can help to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in people with cancer who are seriously ill.