Oncology Massage (1) – Introduction

Let’s start with the obvious question: Why is massage different for cancer patients (or survivors)?

A simple question, but a tricky answer. There isn’t a specific type of massage that’s used only for the oncology population. In fact, any technique I use with my cancer clients I can (and do) use with my other clients. The unique part about cancer massage is an increased awareness about the client, his or her medical treatment, and, most importantly, the side effects of this treatment.

Side effects from cancer treatment – such as pain, scars from surgery, or fragile skin from chemo – require adjustments to the massage session. This isn’t a new idea: many conditions, cancer related or not, require the therapist to tailor the session appropriately. The difference here is that many of these conditions occur simultaneously, so there are simply more adjustments to make. Lets say a client recently had a mastectomy, had lymph nodes removed in her right underarm, and her lower legs are currently numb. That’s three major adjustments all at once. Massage is still possible, but it might take some extra preparation and creativity.

The way we view cancer has changed over time, but our view of massage during cancer treatment has been slow to catch up. The biggest fear is that massage will increase the chance of metastasis, that is, the likelihood of the initial tumor breaking off and traveling to another area. Conceptually, this makes sense – added pressure makes things move around inside the body. But not in this case. Cancer doesn’t spread because of high pressure or increased circulation. Rather, it spreads due to genetic alterations, chronic inflammation, carcinogens, bacteria, and viruses.

Think about it: if massage was a risk for spreading cancer, so would almost any cardiovascular activity – walking the dog, riding a bike, working out at the gym. In that case, doctors would tell cancer patients not to do any of these things, and just stay at home in bed watching television. In fact, doctors almost always urge their patients to stay active. And while they might not say it explicitly, staying active should include getting regular massages.

Now that medical science has advanced so much in finding and treating cancer, it’s often viewed as a chronic condition – something to live with and manage. In 2006, nearly 11.4 million Americans were alive after having been diagnosed with invasive cancer [source]. Because of this, massage therapists have be able to adapt their massages for clients with a history of cancer. Otherwise, they risk alienating a very large demographic.

In the next 3 posts, I’ll be discussing the benefits of caring touch for people with cancer, the potential adjustments involved in massaging these clients, and the use of massage for both patients and caregivers in a hospice setting. My hope is that these posts can bring some insight into an important topic that few people think about but many should.


Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Benefits
Part Three: Adjustments
Part Four: Hospice

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