Massage and Related Bodywork
Caution: Some complementary agents or therapies may be useful for cancer patients; however, some may be harmful in certain situations. MD Anderson Cancer Center cautions patients to consult with their oncologist before attempting to use any agents or therapies referenced on these pages. Inclusion of an agent, therapy or resource on this CIMER Web site does not imply endorsement by MD Anderson Cancer Center.
- Review is based upon articles published as of March 1, 2006
- Information on the scientific basis of massage and related bodywork is provided in the Detailed Scientific Review
Massage is an ancient, but continually evolving, therapy. It involves touch and manipulation of the soft tissues of the body. Some forms are limited to the skin and/or superficial muscles while others focus upon deeper layers.
Initial effects may be calming or invigorating. Relaxation, reduced nausea, reduced pain and improved quality of life have been reported in some randomized studies among patients with cancer. Lymphedema (swelling) has been significantly reduced through a combination of a special type of massage known as manual lymphatic drainage plus compression bandaging. Results for any outcomes may be varied due to the frequency and type of massage, therapist’s experience and recipient’s expectations.
Massage therapy is regulated by countries, states and cities. Professional standards, continuing education and added certification are provided by groups like the American Massage Therapy Association and the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.
Health care professionals treating lymphedema should be trained by a program that offers greater than 135 hours of both didactic and hands on training. National certification is offered through the Lymphology Association of North America (LANA) for graduates of such training programs who have two years’ experience in treating lymphedema.
Therapists providing any type of massage for patients with cancer should have specific training in the special needs of patients with cancer.
Massage is provided at MD Anderson through the Department of Rehabilitation (specific therapeutic needs) and Place...of wellness (general relaxation).
Massage can vary from five minutes up to 45, 60 or 90 minutes.
How it is taken
Massage can be received while lying down (front, side or back). It can also be received while in a special chair that provides support for a semi seated/kneeling position. It can focus on just one body area (e.g. hand, foot or back) or be full body. Oil, lotion or powder may be used depending on the type of massage and personal preference.
Thoughts or emotions may arise during a massage that are reminders of past events or issues of concern. Pain that is brief or lasts a few days may result from deep tissue massage. This pain can be reduced or avoided completely by an experienced therapist who changes pressure in response to patient feedback. Oil on the skin or hair can be avoided if objectionable.
For patients who have been treated with radiation, even cautious and light touch massage might cause inflammation of the skin and a reactivation or worsening of lymphedema.
Massage in the general area of a tumor or unknown mass can disperse cells that could be malignant.
Sudden release of lactic acid and other toxins from tissues may occur with varying reactions.
Extreme bruising may occur in patients with a low platelet count or who are taking blood thinners such as Coumadin. Also, those who have a history of blood clots or bone metastasis may be at risk.
Massage of the lower neck by an inexperienced person may cause numbness or tingling in the hands or arms. It may even cause fainting due to obstruction of circulation and/or pressure on nerves.
To avoid potential interactions, be sure to let your health care provider know if you use this or any other type of complementary therapy.
Most massage therapists advise drinking extra water after massage. This assists in flushing toxins from the tissues.
Patients with cancer should seek a therapist with specific training and experience in the special needs of cancer patients.
Authors and Editors
Nancy C. Russell, Dr.P.H., senior health education specialist, Integrative Medicine Program Education Component
Reviewers and editors:
Pamela R. Massey, M.S., director, Rehabilitation Services
Janet Scheetz, senior physical therapist
Sat-Siri Sumler, registered massage therapist, N.C.N.B.
Lorenzo P. Cohen, Ph.D., director, Integrative Medicine Program
Stephen P. Tomasovic, Ph.D., senior vice president for academic affairs