Oncology massage is a customized therapy for patients who have been diagnosed with cancer. All patients have unique cases, with many undergoing chemotherapy and others opting for palliative care. The amounts of physical and mental stress vary from person to person, and a compassionate non-invasive approach to care can meet their individual needs.
A specially trained massage therapist will have extensive knowledge of the disease and how it impacts the human body. In the pre-consultation, an assessment will take place to determine the techniques and accommodations to be used in the massage. The most therapeutic modality will be different for each patient. A relaxing Swedish massage may be best for a palliative care patient, whereas a person undergoing radiation may need lymphatic drainage. What can be expected from an oncology massage assessment? And how does massage relieve the symptoms of cancer?
Oncology Massage Pre-Consultation
For a therapist to perform massage safely, the patient will be asked questions pertaining to the following:
- Cancer treatment history
- Upcoming cancer treatments
- Current medications
- Blood cell count
- Site of tumor or removal scar
- Lymph node involvement
- Vital organ involvement
- Blood clots
- Fragile tissue
- Medical devices
- Weakness or fatigue
- Side effects of cancer treatment
Before scheduling a massage, patients should ask their primary care providers if it is safe. The factors listed above can impact the effectiveness and safeness of the massage, so always err on the side of caution. Certain medications, such as muscle relaxants, can keep a patient from recognizing excessive amounts of pressure. Neuropathy can do the same. If tissue is fragile, a patient can risk organ damage or bone fractures if deep pressure isn’t acknowledged. Low platelet count can also be a risk factor if massage is too deep, being a common cause of bruising.
Excessive pressure isn’t the only concern in oncology massage. Physical contact with a tumor or incision site can be dangerous. Especially in the case of brain cancer, as touching the area may cause seizures. No matter how often a patient sees the same therapist, the tumor site must be brought up at each pre-consultation. When tailored to the patient, massage is an excellent therapy for the cancer symptoms and the effects of treatments.
Cancer Symptoms Treated Through Massage
The illness and treatments can be accompanied by many types of physical pain. Muscle aches, headaches, nerve pain, joint pain, etc. The most commonly known benefit of massage is pain relief, and a cancer patient may be enduring multiple types of pain. Massage stimulates receptors that send sensory signals to the central nervous system, which then leads to the surge of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Endorphins play a particularly important role, contributing to pain reduction as well as an overall feeling of relaxation.
Have you ever heard of someone having an emotional release during massage? It can happen during any type of massage, but it’s fairly common in oncology massage. Sometimes just being able to relax in a safe space with an objective person is enough to free it. Emotional release is not only healthy, it’s expected. It’s ok to cry.
In addition to emotional stress, depression is also prevalent among cancer patients and their families. The chemicals mentioned above, serotonin and dopamine, are called the happy hormones and improve one’s sense of wellbeing.
Chemotherapy, and cancer itself, can both lead to edema. Promoting lymph flow, the pressure from massage drains waste products into the lymph nodes. When lymph is neutralized in the nodes, swelling reduces.
With that said, the therapist will only push the toxin-carrying waste toward the nodes and will not actually touch them. Cancer can cause the lymph nodes to be swollen or painful, and massaging them may not be therapeutic.
This is a side effect of cancer treatments. The body has a special pressure point called the pericardium 6, or P6, and it can be massaged to relieve nausea and headaches. P6 is located on the middle of the anterior forearm (palm side) just below the wrist, in between the radius and ulna.
When muscles are manipulated, the improved blood circulation will send nourishment to the nerve endings. If neuropathy isn’t present, enhanced blood flow may still prevent the onset.
Cancer can lead to weakness and fatigue, and restful sleep can offer some relief. Massage, with its aforementioned ability to release serotonin, will improve the quality of sleep. Serotonin is important for melatonin synthesis.
Oncology Massage Safety
Just to reiterate, a primary care provider must be consulted before an oncology massage takes place. Oncology massage, when customized to the client’s individual needs, is generally safe but precautions should still be taken. The patient needs to report any changes, such as platelet count or areas that can’t be touched, at each follow-up massage.
Do you know somebody who may be interested in oncology massage? Ask about our specially trained therapists and schedule an appointment. The healing power of touch is a real gift.
Author, Licensed Massage Therapist
Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.
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“Acupressure Point P6: Pericardium 6 or Nei Guan.” Explore Integrative Medicine, UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, exploreim.ucla.edu/self-care/acupressure-point-p6/.
“Benefits of Oncology Massage.” Piedmont Healthcare, www.piedmont.org/living-better/benefits-of-oncology-massage.
“Cancer Pain.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/pain.html.
“Oncology Massage Overview.” Society for Oncology Massage, www.s4om.org/oncology-massage-overview.