Is Massage Therapy Safe for Cancer Patients?

As recently as a decade ago, bodyworkers were consistently told that massage was contraindicated for clients with cancer. Massage schools and their instructors feared that massage would spread cancer throughout the body, and so taught their students to avoid treating these clients.


This opinion grew from the assumption that massage could cause cells to break off from tumors and travel to other sites in the body, and/or that the increased lymphatic activity resulting from massage would spread cancer throughout the body.


Now, it is recognized that many other activities, like exercise and increased lymphatic activity, are not restricted for cancer patients, suggesting massage is not necessarily detrimental in clients with cancer.


Massage therapists treating clients with cancer report that it relaxes them and reduces stress, boosts the immune system by removing toxins from the body, aids in improving circulation, and increases energy. It can also help reduce pain and nausea, and other side effects that accompany radiation and chemotherapy treatments.


Many caregivers now recommend massage for clients undergoing chemotherapy because of its ability to ease the side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea and pain.


Massage may benefit women with breast cancer, by reducing depression, anxiety, and anger, and increasing clients’ levels of dopamine, serotonin, immune system cells, and lymphocytes. According to one study, breast cancer patients have “improved immune and neuroendocrine functions” following massage therapy [study conducted by the Touch Research Institutes, Department of Pediatrics, Hematology/Oncology Clinics, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Department of Medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine].


In the study, 34 women with either stage 1 or 2 breast cancer were randomly assigned to either a massage therapy group or a standard treatment control group. In the massage therapy group, the women received three 30-minute massages per week for five weeks, including stroking, squeezing and stretching on the head, arms, legs, feet and back. Urine tests showed that the massage group had increased serotonin, dopamine, and natural killer cells and lymphocytes. Questionnaires administered in the study showed reduced anxiety, depression, anger, and hostility in the massage therapy group.


Yvonne Meziere’s article, “Breast Cancer: How Massage Aids Recovery” [Mezier, 2001], describes the physical and emotional effects of massage therapy for the breast-cancer patient. Her clients noticed a decrease in swelling and muscle tightness, increased range of motion, and decrease in pain and tingling. Meziere concludes that massage therapy contributes positively to the psycho-immunological relationship; specifically, that decreased pain, symptom distress, and anxiety, and feeling better, in general, can positively influence the immune systems of cancer patients.


Research on the beneficial effects of massage is being conducted by noted organizations worldwide, including the Marie Curie Cancer Centre in Liverpool, England, and the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute. The Hospital Based Massage Network estimates that at least 100 hospitals are offering massage to their patients, including those with cancer and chronic pain. In a paper discussing massage and cancer, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire unequivocally states: “It is our belief that gentle, conscious massage is not only safe, but has many demonstrated beneficial effects (e.g. enhanced well-being, decreased anxiety, nausea and fatigue).”


The American Cancer Society estimates that 563,100 Americans— more than 1,500 a day — will die of cancer each year. Even more, however — an estimated 8 million Americans — are living with cancer, and massage can play a significant role in improving these individuals’ quality of life. More and more oncologists are familiar with the benefits of massage therapy, and many are becoming comfortable with providing referrals to alternative and complementary therapies, including massage therapy, for patients with cancer.


The massage practitioner should always work with the client’s medical team, including the oncologist and other medical professionals. Some doctors may require more education than others regarding how massage can assist the client to better manage and deal with their cancer. When a doctor and/or other treating professionals are involved, however, communication is crucial to the success of any massage treatment plan. The massage therapist needs to maintain contact with the treating professional, to get updates on treatment and contraindications, as well as to update them on any changes in the patient.


Informed consent from the client with cancer is essential. The client, the massage practitioner and the physician will need to confer with one another regarding details of the case; the type of cancer and its progression, the client’s immune system function, other ongoing medical treatments, the client’s current status (i.e., currently in remission), potential risks related to massage treatment, and expected benefits from massage. Once the client is fully apprised of the situation, he or she can decide to proceed or not to proceed with massage treatment.


Serving clients with cancer can be intensely rewarding. To learn more about treating patients with chronic conditions check out our continuing education course library for massage therapists at


Do you treat clients with cancer? How has it been integrated into their overall treatment plan? Share your thoughts in the comments.