Massage therapy

Massage therapy is the treatment of the muscles and soft tissues in your body. It can help lower stress, ease tension in your muscles and make you feel more relaxed. Massage therapy is one of the most popular complementary therapies used by people living with cancer.

When having massage therapy, you usually lie on a table. You can wear either loose-fitting clothing or you can be undressed (with a sheet covering your body). Massage on your neck, arms and shoulders can be done while sitting in a chair. Sometimes the therapy rooms have low lighting and quiet music to help you relax during your treatment.

Massage therapy methods

There are many different types of massage therapy methods. A massage therapist may use just one type of massage or may combine different types during a treatment session.

Swedish massage is the most common type of massage therapy in Canada. The massage therapist uses long strokes, pressure, stretches and friction to loosen tight muscles.

Deep tissue massage is done with stroking and finger pressure on deep layers of muscle tissue, where muscles are tight or knotted.

Myotherapy may also be called trigger point or pressure point massage therapy. It is done with a variety of strokes and focused pressure to ease or release trigger points. Trigger points are knots of tight muscle tissue that may cause pain or limit range of motion. They can be painful when pressed during massage.

Lymphatic massage may also be called lymphatic drainage. It uses slow, light, rhythmic touch and pressure to help the body move lymph fluid throughout the lymphatic system. It is most often used to decrease lymphedema.

Reflexology is based on the theory that every part of our body is represented by a different area on our feet. Pressing on specific reflex points on the feet can treat the area of the body where there are blockages in energy flow. Sometimes the therapist may also use reflex points on the hands or ears. Reflexology is often used in relaxation therapy to encourage the body to function better under stress.

Oncology massage is a specialty where massage techniques are changed to meet the needs of people with cancer and undergoing cancer treatments.

Massage as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that massage therapy can treat cancer itself. There is evidence that massage therapy helps people with cancer physically and emotionally, and it can improve their quality of life.

People often use massage therapy to help reduce muscle soreness and stiffness. It can also help reduce pain (such as headaches and low back pain), anxiety and stress. It improves circulation and promotes relaxation and a sense of well-being. Studies have shown that massage therapy can help reduce stress, anxiety, pain, fatigue and depression. It can also help with problems sleeping (insomnia), improve sleep quality and reduce nausea.

A type of lymphatic massage called manual lymph drainage (MLD) can reduce the swelling from lymphedema in women with breast cancer.

Side effects and risks of massage therapy

Talk to your healthcare team if you’re thinking about trying massage therapy. Be sure to tell your massage therapist that you have cancer, any treatments that you have had or are having, and any medicines that you’re taking. Depending on your overall health and the conventional cancer treatments you are receiving, you may need to avoid certain types of massage.

If you have damaged blood vessels or a bleeding disorder, such as easy bruising and bleeding or blood clots, you should not have a massage. If you are taking blood thinners, you should avoid massage or only have very gentle, light touch massage to prevent bruising and bleeding.

If you have osteoporosis or a cancer that has spread to the bone (called bone metastasis), having physical manipulation or deep pressure massage may lead to a bone breaking (fracture).

If you have had radiation therapy, you may find it uncomfortable to have the treatment area touched, even lightly. If you do find massage comfortable but are still having radiation treatment, don’t use lotion or oil on the area that receives radiation.

Don’t have a massage if you have a fever or infection. If you have an open wound or sore, the therapist will not treat that area.

Some people have minor bruising or swelling or notice that their muscles feel even more sore shortly after a massage.

Allergic reactions are possible if aromatherapy oils are used during the massage.

Some people might worry that massage in the area of a tumour can increase the flow of blood and lymph fluid, causing cancer cells to break away and travel to other parts of the body. Recent evidence suggests that the speed of blood or lymph fluid circulation has nothing to do with the spread of cancer cells. Massage therapy is safe for people with cancer.

Finding a therapist

Massage therapy is a recognized healthcare profession. It’s important to have massage done by a registered massage therapist (RMT). Some provinces and territories have professional massage therapy associations that make sure that therapists are properly trained and follow professional standards. Private healthcare plans may require a doctor’s prescription for massage therapy and will only cover massage given by an RMT.

Expert review and references

  • Ades T, Alteri R, Gansler T, et al (eds.). American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary & Alternative Cancer Therapies. 2nd ed. Georgia: American Cancer Society; 2009.
  • Collinge W, MacDonald G, & Walton T . Massage in supportive cancer care. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. Elsevier; 2012.
  • Decker G . Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in integrative oncology. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 24: 626-654.
  • Falkensteiner M, Mantovan F, Muller I, & Them C . The use of massage therapy for reducing pain, anxiety, and depression in oncological palliative care patients: a narrative review of the literature. ISRN Nursing. Hindawi Publishing Corporation; 2011.
  • Karagozoglu S, & Kahve E. . Effects of back massage on chemotherapy-related fatigue and anxiety: Supportive care and therapeutic touch in cancer nursing. Applied Nursing Research. Elsvier; 2013.
  • Lee MS. Lee EN, & Ernst E . Massage therapy for breast cancer patients: a systematic review. Annals of Oncology. Oxford University Press; 2011.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Massage Therapy for Health Purposes: What You Need to Know. Bethesda, MD: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM); 2014:
  • Sagar, S. M., Dryden, E., & Wong, R. K . Massage therapy for cancer patients: a reciprocal relationship between body and mind. Current Oncology. Milton, ON: Multimed Inc; 2007.
  • Toth M, Marcantonio ER, Davis RB, et al . Massage therapy for patients with metastatic cancer: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. New Rochdale, NY: Mary Ann Leibert, Inc; 2013.
  • Ulbricht C, Cohen L, Lee R . Complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies in cancer care. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Willams, Wilkins; 2011: 181.