Author: Karen Appold
Having cancer and receiving treatment for it can be overwhelming, physically and emotionally. But the soothing effects of massage therapy may provide the exact comfort you need — improving sleep, boosting your immune system, and relieving anxiety, stress, tension, pain, and fatigue.
A meta-analysis published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2015 that looked at the effects of massage therapy on pain found that massage therapy significantly reduced cancer pain compared to conventional care. The researchers found that massage was especially effective for surgery-related pain.
"Massage can provide a nurturing, caring touch to cancer sufferers, which is a welcome change from medical procedures to treat the disease," says CG Funk, vice president for industry relations and product development at Massage Envy Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona.
A second, small study, published in the Journal of Clinical Trials in 2014, found that gentle therapeutic massage improved stress levels and health-related quality of life in patients with acute myelogenous leukemia (also called acute myeloid leukemia).
Yet another small study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2013, found that providing therapeutic massage to patients with metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread) in their homes may be associated with reduced pain and better sleep quality.
Bachir Sakr, MD, director of medical oncology and medical director of the infusion center in the Program in Women’s Oncology at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island in Providence, says that "some scientists believe the benefits may be as simple as the warmth of human touch and the sense that someone is caring for them."
A type of massage called oncology massage was designed for cancer patients and uses a cautious approach. "Oncology massage therapists are taught to manage patients’ symptoms and side effects and use an individualized therapeutic treatment to care for, comfort, and support them in their process," Dr. Sakr says. "The treatments become part of the healing process."
Oncology massage includes a variety of styles, each with different techniques. "Each style can be effective — it’s more about the patient’s preference and the best style to manage symptoms," Sakr says. "Common types of massage are Swedish massage, Tuina massage, reflexology, Shiatsu, aromatherapy massage, and lymphatic drainage."
Jeffrey Long, MD, a radiation oncologist at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center at Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma, Louisiana, says that "most massage therapists can give many different types of massage styles and techniques, [and] they can help you to figure out what style is the best one for your needs."
Massage therapists usually use their hands, but they may also use their elbows, forearms, and special massage tools to rub or stroke the soft tissues of your body. Massages can range from light to firm. "A trained and experienced massage therapist should know how to modify the massage for your specific needs," Dr. Long says.
Funk adds that when working with cancer patients, "Therapists may need to avoid certain sites of the body, apply lighter pressure, use slow strokes, and limit the length of your session."
Frequency and Cost
How often you should get a massage? Ask your massage therapist, says Long. You should consider such factors as how severe your symptoms are and how much previous massages have helped you. Typically, cancer patients get massages once a week.
A basic massage, often referred to as a Swedish massage, generally starts at about $50 for a half-hour and $75 for an hour in smaller cities. The cost is often higher in larger cities, starting at about $90 for a one-hour massage. Specialty massages, such as aromatherapy or hot-stone, tend to be more expensive than a basic massage.
Your insurance might cover massage as part of your treatment. "In the simplest terms, the massage needs to be considered medically necessary and prescribed by a doctor in order for it to be covered," Long says. "However, even with a medical recommendation, coverage still depends upon your type of insurance. Some insurance plans cover massage therapy, while many others do not."
Government-run health-insurance programs vary, with some having completely ruled out massage therapy, and others remaining flexible.
Most insurance companies will cover manual lymphatic drainage, a specific form of light massage used to treat a condition called lymphedema. In lymphedema, a blockage in the lymphatic system prevents lymph fluid from draining well, resulting in swelling, usually of an arm or leg.
"I recommend that cancer patients talk with their doctor about the therapeutic value of massage as a complementary therapy to their cancer treatment," Sakr says.
One way to find a qualified massage therapist who specializes in cancer oncology massage is to use the American Massage Therapy Association's online locator service, www.findamassagetherapist.org.