Oncology Massage (2) – Benefits

Massage, acupuncture, naturopathy, hypnotherapy. These therapies (and more) are often classified under the heading of “alternative medicine”, as if cancer patients should be forced to choose between medical science and other treatments. But rather than viewing these treatments as alternatives to anything, it’s better to think of them as complementary to normal medical treatments. Doctors are really good at treating the cancer, but massage therapy (and others) are great at working with the bigger picture – the whole person. Used in combination, these treatments work towards freeing the patient from cancer while minimizing or controlling the side-effects.

More and more people are starting to realize that patients need more than just radiation and chemo to get through their cancer in one piece. In a 1999 publication, NCI found that about half of their cancer centers offered massage as a complementary therapy to cancer treatment [source]. A 2005 study found that 2/3 of their doctors recommend some form of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) to their patients, and 57% felt that massage can be an effective treatment.

So massage can help during cancer treatment; many people, including doctors, know this. But how does it help? And how do we know?

We know by two methods: scientific research and personal anecdotes. Each of these has their advantages; they also have their flaws. Scientific research is just that: scientific. Controlled settings, solid results that are taken seriously by other professions. But these benefits can also serve as drawbacks: the findings in a scientific study are sometimes very narrow and too heavily controlled to be applicable in the real world. Massage is both a science and an art form – art can’t be expected to heed the rules of research.

Anecdotes, however, are slippery in another way. Descriptions of single instances in which massage has incredible results are powerful – much more powerful than research statistics. But for every success story, there are at least 20 non-eventful massages, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, no big breakthroughs. These are more common, sure, but also less interesting. They get pushed aside and forgotten in order to make room for the exciting (but rare) cases.

Anecdotes, by their very nature, will help to prove the point they’re trying to make. They make great stories, but they don’t show the whole picture.

So let’s talk research. There haven’t been a great number of studies on massage in an oncology setting, but what has been done has shown some promising results. First of all, massage is clearly beneficial when it comes to decreasing pain and anxiety in cancer patients. These results shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since they’re also some of the strongest findings in the non-cancer population.

The rest of the factors: fatigue, nausea, medicine use, etc – either have mixed results or just don’t have enough research to back up a claim in either direction. One factor in particular – how massage affects a patient’s length of time in the hospital – ought to have more studies soon. Besides being a benefit to the patient, if researchers found that massage did indeed reduce hospital stay, it would be good for the hospital’s bottom line. All research requires funding, and a hospital looking to cut costs might benefit from this type of study.

While pain and anxiety are only two factors on a big list of variables, the implications are still huge. Say it out loud: Massage therapy has been proven to reduce pain and anxiety in cancer patients. It’s a great statement.

In the vast space between quantitative studies and personal anecdotes lies another type of research: qualitative. This type of research is literally measuring quality of life, that is, how the patient feels after receiving a massage. And in a way, isn’t that just as important as a number on a chart? Overall, massage has shown quite positive results in qualitative studies. In one study, patients reported a number of common themes after receiving massages: feeling special, feeling as though they had greater strength, and feeling that massage provided meaningful relief from their suffering [source].

In a study working with breast cancer patients who had undergone a mastectomy, massage therapy helped to lessen the patients’ emotional trauma and cope with their changing self-image [source]. If nothing else, massage helps to give cancer patients a positive outlook on their situation. And a positive outlook like that is beneficial on so many layers.

Massage therapy can’t solve all the problems, and it would be wrong of me (or anyone) to suggest that it could. But what massage can accomplish shouldn’t be overlooked. Less pain and anxiety, and feeling better about oneself in a number of ways. To put it broadly, research has shown that massage for cancer patients is a very good thing.


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

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