Cancer vs. HIV / AIDS: A Comparative Overview

The amount of information about cancer and AIDS that's available in print and online can be overwhelming. It's easy to become confused about the differences between the two diseases. This brief article defines key terms, examines the differences between cancer and AIDS prevention and treatment, and explains how patients can benefit from massage.

Key Terms

Cancer: The uncontrolled growth of normal cells. No one knows for sure what the cause is. There are many theories. The body encapsulates the tumor, more localized.
Virus: Protein capsules made of DNA or RNA. They invade healthy cells and replicate there. Viruses can lie dormant for many years until conditions support their activation. They enter the body via the respiratory system, open skin and breaks in the mucous membranes. Antibiotic therapy is not an effective treatment. Virus is systemic.
HIV-AIDS Virus: Attacks the immune system and transmutes RNA into DNA.
HIV: Human Immunodificiency Virus.
AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Syndrome: A defined group of physical symptoms.
Sarcoma: Originates in connective tissue: bones, muscles, fat, cartilage, blood vessels.
Kaposi's Sarcoma: Purple skin eruptions that are cancer. These lesions are tumors that line the blood vessels, and may be external or internal. Patients die of suffocation as the lesions grow rapidly in the lung. 
Not every person who is HIV-positive contracts AIDS. They may be carriers only and never exhibit any symptoms. Having AIDS is no longer a death sentence. It is now considered a chronic condition. Not all people with AIDS contract Kaposi's Sarcoma. And, unless a person with cancer has been exposed to HIV, they will not contract AIDS.


Cancer. No one knows for sure. Theories stem from diet, heredity, pollution, stagnation, toxicity, stress, lifestyle habits, bacterial contamination, etc.

HIV. The virus attacks the immune system. Entry is gained by:

  • Unprotected or promiscuous sexual conduct;
  • Blood Intravenous, Transfusions, Infected Needles;
  • Placenta mother to fetus, breast milk.

An infection can occur when:

  • The virus must have a proper environment to survive. It is anaerobic (lives without air);
  • A large quantity of virus must enter the system;
  • There must be a port of entry.


Cancer. Discovery of tumor growth.
HIV. Simple blood test.
AIDS. T-cell count of 200 or below. Normal count is 800 to 1,300 cells per microliter of blood.


Cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy (intravenous or oral), radiation, alternative therapies: chelation, diet, herbs, supplements, Eastern modalities.
AIDS. Drug therapy, alternative therapies, as above.

Touch Aspect

Cancer. I see no fear associated with touching a person with cancer. The fear of the massage profession is in possibly spreading the disease. Some massage schools teach students to not give a massage to someone with cancer. This may be taught as there is a lack of knowledge and education on what cancer is, and how it is spread. This is why so many articles and books are now available to the massage therapy profession. I do agree that a deep or Swedish massage as taught in school is a contraindication. The body may find it difficult to process an abundance of toxins due to chemotherapy and numerous other drugs. A deep massage will only add to that overload and place the person in an ill situation. Tissue and capillary damage are possible during chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The proper touch is a way to boost the immune system by increasing killer T-cells, reduce pain by releasing endorphins and providing quality of life with a loving, nurturing, safe touch. It is important for the therapist to maintain a comfort level. Fear and anxiety are transmitted by the hands.

AIDS. People with AIDS are not as readily touched, as people with cancer are touched. The fear of contagion looms on. Many massage therapists have voiced an opinion on jeopardizing their practice in fear of their well clients finding out that they see AIDS clients in their office. This is a real issuemorally, physically and legally. It is illegal to refuse care, especially to someone with AIDS. If you choose not see a person with AIDS, refer them to another therapist. Please be certain that you know of a colleague who will work with the AIDS person beforehand. 
When speaking to this person, it is important to determine what their physical status is regarding infections, limitations and what other aspects of the syndrome they exhibit. In both the care of AIDS and cancer, a doctor's note is advisable. In some cases, a medical history should be provided. 
The issue of wearing gloves while massaging an AIDS patient is constantly being debated. Since I understand how the HIV virus is contracted, I do not use gloves during a massage session. When a suspicious lesion appears, I would provide gentle energy work rather than massage the area. If the client requests that I wear gloves, I honor their request. When in doubt, use your own judgment. Skin-to-skin touch is most needed by AIDS patients, since they have been deemed "untouchable." Repeating the general benefits of massage here, is unnecessary. However, recent scientific studies have demonstrated that massage increases T-cell counts.
Whether your client has cancer or AIDS, you are touching more than the bodyyou are also touching his or her soul.

Internal Quiet

Cancer. Since no one knows the cause of cancer, self-blame is not a factor. However, people who smoked may carry guilt as the cause of their illness. There are also people who feel that their behavior toward themselves or others is a contributing factor.
AIDS. Self-blame as to past lifestyle is a major factor in patients with AIDS, especially if the disease was contracted via sexual contact or intravenous drug use. People who have contracted the virus unknowingly, such as through a blood transfusion, carry a great deal of anger.

Fear Of Exposure

Cancer. As a commonly accepted illness, there is universal support on every aspect. 
AIDS. Upon diagnosis, isolation, rejection and abandonment by friends and family may occur. The strength of people with AIDS has been in the bonding and joining together of the AIDS community.


Cancer. Awareness and education, lifestyle change, diet, exercise, massage, self-examination, stress reduction, a toxic-free environment, routine physical examination, and knowledge of family history.
AIDS. Awareness and education, lifestyle change, protected safe sex, exercise, massage, stress reduction, and good medical management.

Common Ground-Cancer and AIDS

  1. Neither are spread by hugging, massages, door handles, toilet seats, water fountains, drinking glasses, hot tubs or telephones.
  2. Psychological trauma, fear enters and deep emotional feeling arise. Fear of pain, death and the unknown.
  3. All need to be touched.
  4. Both respond well to massage and bodywork. In acute phases, which include chemotherapy, radiation and fever, massage must be modified to light, slow touch, with a possible shorter time frame. If massage is not indicated, as with a fever or skin sensitivity, therapeutic touch, reiki, polarity, etc. are ideally suited for this time. A good massage session should included a bit of energy work. Massage therapists who have not had any training in energy work, would benefit from learning such modalities.
  5. Reconnects the body. People with cancer and AIDS relate that they feel "disconnected." This may be due to a lack of touch, poor self-image or having a body part removed through surgery. Touch seems to bring it all together. A light touch also moves chi or energy through the body. The body and the its organs are energized without moving body fluids. 
  6. Psychological trauma does not have to be physical. Any loss which evokes pain, suffering, or sadness is a trauma, and has a definite effect on the immune system, as well as the body.

Physical Symptoms And Complaints

Cancer. Physical scarring from testing and/or surgery. Nausea and/or vomiting, hair loss, constipation, bloating and gas, edema/lymphedema or steroids, mouth sores, sensitivity to odors, food preference changes, bruises easily, dry skin, general itching, vaginal itching, tightness on scar tissue from surgery, numbness and tingling, headaches, lack of appetite, fatigue, change in sleep patterns, change in sex life, muscle aches and pains, inflammation of chemotherapy sites, and radiation burn and radioermatitis.

AIDS. Lowered resistance to infection, loss of appetite, flu-like symptoms, unexplained weight loss, GI disturbances, chronic low-grade fever, perspiration, chronic fatigue and weakness, severe diarrhea, persistent mouth sores and ulcers, chronic cough and other respiratory symptoms. As the condition worsens, there are changes in mentality, vision, etc.


Regardless of technique, remember your intent. Healing, fixing and curing should not be the focus. Caring, touching, nurturing, loving and supporting, and being present are the most important qualities. 

Cancer. Modification is necessary in the acute phase. Intention is to relax, restore, nurture and support. The degree of pressure is from deep to shallow, the speed becomes slow and definitive in movement to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to replace the sympathetic nervous system, and the length of a session may vary. As the client completes treatment, techniques may be increased.

AIDS. Any modality is appropriate and is adjusted at the client's tolerance. Acupuncture and shiatsu work very well. There's more latitude since the virus doesn't have the same impact as cancer, especially in the remission stage.
Each client will present themselves completely different. No two will be alike. Each person arrives with their own set of baggage. It is important to honor where they are, not be judgmental and assist them in their healing process. What works for one client will not work for another. There is a definite advantage to knowing a variety of modalities to be ready for any client and be able to adapt to their individual needs. It is not necessary to be an expert to everything. And as much as you touch the person with cancer and AIDS, they will "touch" you as well. 

Cheryl Chapman is a holistic registered nurse massage practitioner, oncology massage specialist, and approved CEU provider for the NCBTMB in massage for cancer and life-threatening illness and massage for mastectomy and breast surgeries. She has a private practice in Springfield/Short Hills, New Jersey.

McAllister et al. Cancer. New York: Basic Books, Year, p. 8.
McAllister, p. 3.
McAllister, p. 93.

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