It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Can Oncology Massage Benefit You?
Research on massage in people with breast cancer and other types of cancer
Studies have shown that massage seems to offer both physical and emotional benefits for women with breast cancer.
A 2003 study at the University of Minnesota 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. In this study, researchers found that, while both healing touch and massage lowered anxiety and pain, massage also reduced the need for pain medicine.
In a 5-week study at the University of Miami in 2003, massage therapy and progressive muscle relaxation therapy were compared in 58 women with stage I and II breast cancer. Both groups reported 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. In addition, for the massage group, there 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.
There is no evidence that massage can cause an existing cancer to spread.
Important things to consider before trying massage therapy
If you have breast cancer and are interested in finding a massage therapist, ask your surgeon or oncologist for recommendations. 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 it has the potential to cause harm. Keep these things in mind:
- If you've just had breast surgery, you should lie on your back for a massage until your doctor decides it is safe for you to lie on your stomach.
- Deep 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 risk of bruising. Since deep massage can be taxing to a system already vulnerable from chemotherapy and radiation, it is not recommended for people currently in treatment. Light massage can be used instead.
- If you're currently undergoing radiation, 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 you have had lymph nodes removed, the massage therapist should only use very light touch on your affected arm and the area around the underarm.
Massage practitioner requirements
If you're being treated for breast cancer, it's important to find a licensed massage therapist who has experience with breast cancer patients. Since many cancer centers are connected with programs offering massage therapy, ask your doctor for recommendations. If there are no programs in your area, you can interview potential massage therapists or to ask your doctor to do so.