Massage Therapy for Cancer Patients

Learn how massage can improve the quality of life for cancer patients.

Nearly 2 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States this year1, but the good news is, more people are surviving the disease than ever before. Traditional treatments like surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy have had great success, but sometimes with debilitating side effects.

New research is helping health care professionals and patients alike understand the role massage therapy plays in an integrative care plan. From providing stress relief to helping patients better handle symptoms such as pain and side effects like nausea, massage therapy can make an important difference for cancer patients. 

Massage Therapy Benefits for Cancer Patients:

  • Reducing pain
  • Alleviating stress
  • Relieving nausea
  • Reducing depression and anxiety
  • Improving sleep and lessening fatigue
  • Preventing chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy
  • Relieving lymphedema

Download our handout on the benefits of massage for cancer

Working with Cancer Survivors By Doug Levine, LMT, AMTA National Convention Speaker

Massage Therapy Benefits for Cancer Patients

Relieving Pain 

Pain is the most common symptom among cancer patients. While the exact prevalence of pain varies depending on the type and stage of cancer, research shows that pain generally affects over 50% of individuals undergoing cancer therapy and up to 90% of those with advanced cancer.

Massage therapy shows promise for reducing pain intensity/severity, fatigue, and anxiety in cancer populations. This is the conclusion of a collaborative meta-analysis of research on massage therapy for pain conducted by Samueli Institute and commissioned by the Massage Therapy Foundation, with support from the AMTA. 

Reducing Nausea 

Chemotherapy is typically an aggressive treatment that can have a variety of side effects, with nausea and vomiting being among the most common. While anti-nausea medication is often used for severe cases, new research indicates massage can help patients find some relief from these symptoms.

A 2018 quasi-randomized controlled pilot study looked at the feasibility and preliminary effects of massage and inhalation aromatherapies on chemotherapy-induced acute nausea and vomiting. The 75 breast cancer patients were split into three groups: massage, inhalation, and control. The massage group received 20-minute aromatherapy foot massages before their second, third and fourth chemotherapy cycles, while the inhalation group received three-minute inhalation aromatherapy on the same schedule. The control group received routine treatment.

Results showed that incidences of nausea and vomiting were significantly higher in the control group than in either of the two active groups in the third and fourth chemotherapy cycles. Furthermore, researchers noted that in these two cycles, the incidences of nausea and vomiting were significantly lower in the massage group than the inhalation group.

Helping Lift Depression

Depression is not an uncommon occurrence when dealing with cancer, or even after surviving the disease. At a time when a patient is dealing with a lot of unknowns or worrying about possible outcomes, changes in mood can be expected, but that doesn’t make depression any less troublesome.

There is some research, however, that massage therapy may help with depression and mood disorders in cancer patients. For example, a meta-analysis indicated a significant association between massage therapy and alleviated symptoms of depression.

Easing Fatigue 

Oncology patients already have the mental strain of fighting a life-threatening disease, so helping them find ways to alleviate this fatigue can improve their ability to continue participating in the things they value. According to some new research, massage therapy can play a vital role in mitigating fatigue in oncology patients.

A 2018 study by the Emory University School of Medicine compared the effects of six weeks of once-weekly Swedish massage therapy on cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors against an active control condition (light touch) and wait-list control. This randomized, single-masked, three-arm study included 66 breast cancer survivors who had received surgery plus radiation and/or chemotherapy/chemoprevention who also had cancer-related fatigue. Fatigue levels were compared by measuring the Multidimensional Fatigue Inventory (MFI) and National Institutes of Health PROMIS Fatigue scale at baseline and after the six-week intervention. Results showed that the group receiving Swedish massage had less fatigue versus the group receiving light touch and the control group.

Alleviating Lymphedema

Lymphedema is one of the most common conditions developed because of cancer treatment, causing swelling in the arms and legs which can be painful. For cancer patients dealing with this condition, lymphatic drainage has shown some promise. When a massage therapist is trained in manual lymphatic drainage, they can play a crucial role in helping to identify and treat lymphedema of the arm.

If the nodes have been removed, it is important for individuals to have the upper extremity drained from time to time to keep the lymphatic vessels open and working. If massage has not been performed, an injury or insult to the extremity can cause the area to swell and become increasingly painful.

The effects of lymphedema are long-lasting and don’t fade easily. For that reason, there is a need for awareness and constant communication with clients who have lymphedema when administering any type of massage. Using light pressure is important for any area of the body where nodes have been removed.

Helping Prevent Neuropathy

Recent research on massage therapy for cancer patients continues to indicate its value for preventing chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. A recently-published study showed significant prevention of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy in breast cancer patients for those receiving massage therapy. The success continued through a 12-week assessment.

Related Online Continuing Education Courses

Gain a better understanding of massage therapy as part of an integrative approach to care for cancer patients with AMTA’s NCBTMB-approved online CE courses.

Cancer and Massage Therapy: Part I Online CE Course

$37 members/ $62 non-members    2.5 CE credits

Find out how massage can help reduce isolation, relieve symptoms and empower cancer patients. Learn essential contraindications for oncology patients.

Register Now

Cancer and Massage Therapy: Part II Online CE Course

$45 members/ $75 non-members    3 CE credits

Explore the effects of cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy) and how they can impact patients - learn the massage contraindications for each.

Register Now

Cancer and Massage Therapy: Part III Online CE Course

$60 members/ $100 non-members    4 CE credits

Gain an in-depth understanding for how cancer develops and spreads, and the range of treatments now available. Learn how to create effective and personalized massage therapy session plans for cancer patients while exploring the important cautions and contraindications and the appropriate touch techniques. 

Register Now

1. Cancer Facts & Figures 2023, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Georgia, 2023