Massage and Cancer

In recent conversations with people in the healthcare industry, (nurses, doctors, massage therapist, etc…) it’s amazing to hear stories about how simply a touch can affect a person.  I recall a story a friend told me how one of her sons did not have the best of attitudes.  When she started to implement touch, whether it was a touch on the shoulder or a hug, his attitude started to change for the better.  It’s astounding to hear that something as small as this can change a person’s attitude, let alone incorporating it for someone who suffers from a disease such as cancer.   When I was working on a jobsite at a Hematology/Oncology treatment center, just seeing all of the patients that are affected by different types of cancer receiving chemo treatments broke my heart because of what they have to go through both during treatment and post treatment.  It was then I began to think what could be done outside of the treatments that could help them not only feel good but would it be possible for them to have a faster recovery rate.Cancer can be defined as a malignant and invasive growth or tumor, especially one originating in epithelium, tending to recur after excision and to metastasize to other sites.[1]  So to break this down further, a normal healthy cell undergoes not one, but several mutations until it is considered to be a cancer cell; the mutation could be attributed to carcinogens such as Viral infections and chemical intake like smoking, just to name a few.  Just to give you a quick insight the following table gives the estimated numbers of new cases and deaths for each common cancer type:[2]

The most common way cancer is treated in the medical community is by a combination of treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation.  Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad. This means that while you’re being treated for cancer, the treatment fights the cancer cells but the implications from this are side effects.  A few examples would be stress, skin sensitivity, decreased white blood cell count which can make people more susceptible to communicable disease, fatigue, and nausea.  I had a friend who had recently undergone treatment for breast cancer.  Her regimented treatment would consist of going to the Hematology/Oncology facility once a month for treatments.  From the time of her 1st treatment, she would have to deal with the side effects mention previously.  It would not be until about week 3 that she felt some kind of normality in her life.  But even then, it would still be difficult to be outside for prolonged periods of time (this was during the summer) and play vigorously with her children.

There are alternative methods cancer patients can seek out.   Acupuncture can treat chemotherapy nausea and vomiting.  Aromatherapy helps with emotions. Reflexology to the feet and hands can help treat areas that are sensitive and unable to touch. Shiatsu is said to help control symptoms/side effects like lack of appetite, sleeplessness, pain and depression.  However, the one that seems to be the most beneficial is massage by a therapist who has had training on patients. There have been studies done that show one of the advantages of receiving regular massages increases the natural killer cells in the body. These types of cells are a non-specific form of white blood cells, called Lymphocytes, which can kill cancer cells and virus cells before it triggers the Immune Response system.  Tiffany Field’s has also stated that More Massage=More Natural Killer cells.  To expand on this,

“Researchers also found that women with these abnormal cortisol levels had fewer immune system cells known as natural killer cells, and this reduced immunity was associated with higher mortality. [Stanford University School of Medicine, USA] “

“One of the three ongoing studies with women who have Stage 1 and Stage 2 Breast Cancer has already shown massage producing a reduction of anxiety and an increase in natural killer cell numbers. Fifty-eight (58) Breast Cancer patients from the Miami area participated in the study. Participants, who were in the early stages of cancer, received 20-minute massage therapy twice a week for five weeks; others in a control group received no massage therapy.

At the end of the five week period, blood tests indicated an 11 percent increase in the number of natural killer cells that destroy cancer cells among the participants who received massage therapy. These participants also reported being less depressed, less anxious and less angry, as well as having more vigor than the control group. [The Touch Research Institute – University of Miami Medical Centre][3]

With this kind of research being reported, it further demonstrates how valuable massage can be on a person who has cancer.   To think that with our two hands we can not only make the client feel good, but it’s also beneficial is such a way that it creates cells to ward off the disease.  Also, considering the side effects from the cancer treatments, massage can help reduce the pain, fatigue, and nausea.  Now, not only does the client feel better, but the massage therapist working with the client can see the progress after each session, making the job very fulfilling both physically and mentally.

In today’s society, we were lead to believe that Massage Therapists should not work on cancer patients as it is considered contraindicated due to the fact that it was thought that massage could move the cancer around and metastasize.  As the years go on, more research is being done in conjunction with cancer patients that also received massage therapy treatments.  The American Cancer Society site concludes by saying “Everything surrounding massage therapy—a soothing environment, human touch which is essential to life, a caring therapist, the comfort of prolonged attention, relaxed muscles—combine to make massage one of the most supportive and helpful complementary therapies available.”[4]  The quality of life from these therapy treatments, along with other modalities, has proven to be a way to heal the body in conjunction with the medical treatments for all of the following reasons: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.


[4] American Cancer Society Website,

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