Anybody who has had a good massage can tell you it feels great, but could a massage actually be used as part of a treatment arsenal against a potent enemy like cancer?
It’s almost hard to picture if your idea of a massage involves meditative music, candles, and the relaxing scent of essential oils. But the research shows that massage therapy can, in fact, help people fight cancer.
Massage therapy has certainly stood the test of time, dating back over 3,000 years. Even Hippocrates talked about its restorative qualities. Nowadays, you can find all kinds of variations, from Chinese-derived acupressure to Japanese shiatsu, along with Swedish, deep-tissue, trigger-point massage and lymphatic drainage massage.
Whatever your style, all types of massage are known to help the return of venous blood to the heart. (Arteries take fresh, oxygen-rich blood away from the heart and into the tissues. The veins return the “used” blood to the heart to be re-oxygenated.)
Massage also frees endorphins (our body’s pain-killing chemicals), stimulates lymph movement, and stretches tissue throughout the body.
There’s more to massage than we think
Along with relaxing the body, massage therapy offers profound benefits to both your hormonal and immunologic systems. It also stimulates your lymphatic system to get rid of toxins.
Cancer patients who undergo massage tend to report relief from the five most common symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment: pain, nausea, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
If it’s true that stress contributes to cancer, then massage should be a great preventive if not outright adjunct treatment. In fact, quite a bit of research is coming out to support the decline in anxiety in cancer patients who receive massage therapy.
A 2005 study in the International Journal of Neuroscience proved that when women diagnosed with breast cancer received three 30-minute massages a week for five weeks, they ended up less depressed, less angry, and with more energy than the control group. More important, levels of dopamine (a valuable neurotransmitter), and the immune system’s natural killer cells and lymphocytes reportedly increased for the massage therapy group.
A more recent, 2018 study confirmed that simple 20-minute aromatherapy foot massages given before chemotherapy reduced incidences of nausea and vomiting.
Additional studies confirm massage can help cancer patients relieve pain. Then there’s the unseen benefit of helping your body clear away toxins.
Triggers your lymphatic system
As I mentioned, a huge benefit to massage is that it triggers your lymphatic system. Essentially, this means it prompts the flow of the fluid in your body’s arteries and veins that passes through your lymphatic system. Your lymph tissues then trap waste products from this fluid and carry them out of your body.
By promoting blood flow and increasing the rate of function, massage helps your body eliminate toxins more quickly and effectively. Keep in mind, the lymphatic system is basically another circulatory system within your body, so increasing pressure and flow enhances its function. Unlike your blood system, which has the heart to keep the fluid moving through the pipes, your lymph system does not have a pump. It depends on forces from outside the system to keep things moving.
Think of your lymphatic system as a trash-disposal system for your body. Lymphatic drainage, courtesy of massage, is like emptying the trash — you push it out of your body. You can also get a good dose of lymphatic drainage through exercise. Either way, you’re helping your immune system.
Here’s an interesting note: A study was published many years ago in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that showed lymphatic drainage increased in dogs after having only their foot pads massaged. The same is true for massage in humans, only the benefit increases dramatically with full-body massage.
And let’s be clear, massage is beneficial to cancer patients.
Quashing the fear that massage
For years, there’s been a widespread myth that all massage was contraindicated, or bad, for anybody with cancer. This was based on the underlying fear that massage could speed along the process of cancer metastasis.
From the outside, it made sense. After all, it was a known fact that massage promotes circulation. It was also a known fact that cancerous cells travel throughout the body via the bloodstream. It seemed to make sense that better circulation would simply move cancerous cells more quickly through the body.
Well, here’s the truth about metastasis: Yes, cancerous cells are loosely attached to tissues within the body and are more likely to break off than normal tissue cells that are well-connected to their neighbors.
Yes, detached cancer cells can enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and travel to other parts of the body, eventually lodging in organs and sowing new tumors. But if increasing blood flow significantly contributes to a rise in metastasis, then doctors should warn cancer patients against any type of cardiovascular activity — including deep breathing and exercise. Patients would practically have to lie still all day to avoid speeding up blood flow.
Yet doctors usually encourage people with cancer to exercise whenever possible, and rightly so. There’s abundant evidence that exercise is effective as prevention AND treatment for a number of different types of cancer. This is widely accepted by mainstream medicine.
The bottom line is this: The improved circulation you get from massage therapy doesn’t pose a danger of spreading cancer. It’s a benefit.
Besides, the cause of metastasis is much more complex than just “loose cancer cells in the blood.” Don’t get me wrong — this is a serious concern. It’s one of the reasons I think doctors should be more cautious about performing biopsies. They rupture tissue and release cancer cells into the blood, just for the sake of a test.
But to get metastasis started requires several interactions between cancer cells and the immune system. It also depends on the genetic structure of the cancer cell itself. So even if a cancer cell did get swept up into the circulatory path, as a result of being abraded or pressured during a massage treatment, that doesn’t mean it’ll survive in the bloodstream, find a new host site, secure its own blood supply, and blossom into a new tumor. There’s more to it than that.
And here’s what’s most important: A trained massage therapist will avoid the areas of the body that are cancerous.
When to wait on a massage
It’s a fact that massage can help you through cancer treatment, but there are certain times when you either need to wait to get a massage, or you need to make sure you have a therapist skilled in oncology massage designed specifically for cancer patients.
The first contraindication is the actual tumor site of the cancer. You can still get a massage, but any massage therapist worth his or her salt will know NOT to massage the tumor site.
You don’t want to put any pressure on the site that might disturb tissues in the vicinity of the tumor. In the unlikely event an unskilled therapist tells you massaging the cancer site is “good for you,” get up off the table, get dressed, and walk out.
Fortunately, tumors are pretty easy to avoid and are typically limited to one or two readily defined areas. Surgeon Bernie Siegel made a good point when he wrote to the Massage Therapy Journal to say, “Massage therapy is not contraindicated in cancer patients; massaging a tumor is, but there is a great deal more to a person than their tumor.”
I doubt if someone with cancer that’s confined to one organ — say, the liver or prostate — needs to worry at all about the rest of the body being massaged. If you’ve got kidney or pancreatic cancer there’s no reason you can’t receive a comforting massage to your head, neck, shoulders, limbs and upper chest.
This means communicating your needs to your therapist so he or she knows what to do.
But you might need to wait depending on the progression of your cancer. Until you know how your body is affected by the cancer, and whether your bones or vital organs are involved, you can’t provide enough instruction for a massage therapist to create your treatment plan.
The final contraindication: When it hurts. Some cancer treatments leave you aching. Eventually, massage might help you overcome this, but in the first few days following chemotherapy, radiation, or especially surgery, it may hurt too much to be touched.
Oncology massage is gaining ground
At best, massage therapists can provide seriously ill cancer patients with powerful relief and healing. At minimum, massage can be an extremely comforting and relaxing therapy for cancer patients.
Since we’re all individuals, it makes sense that different types and stages of cancer require different treatments. And that’s what’s great about massage therapy — it can be individualized for a wide variety of symptoms and complications, meaning this treatment is one of the most promising for helping the greatest number of people.
Really, I recommend massage for ANYONE whether you’re sick or not. I’m a long-time fan and have been going to massage therapists for years.