5 Benefits of Oncology MassageFeb 22, 2023
When a person is going through cancer, getting all the support they can is necessary. Massage therapy is uniquely positioned to be able to help with many of the side effects of medical treatments, and can provide a doorway into self-care that fosters resilience and healing.
During the course of my massage therapy career, I've done thousands of appointments with people going through breast cancer. In my private life, I've known many people going through cancer of various kinds, and there are certain commonalities that most people seem to experience, both within themselves and from what massage therapy can give them.
1. A Cancer Diagnosis Requires Additional Support
Common to all people that I've seen going through cancer, additional support is required to make it through this very challenging time.
Some people may have a built in social support network, in the form of close family and good friends. They may need to rely heavily on the skills and capabilities of their network, to bolster their ability to navigate a new world with potentially dire outcomes.
Some people may not have a strong social support network. They may not have family, or many friends, and need to navigate their journey without that built-in safety network.
Still other people may think they have a strong and supportive spouse, only to find that spouse is not up for the challenge of navigating a cancer journey. Said spouse may "check out", either mentally, emotionally or physically, leaving the person isolated and alone. Or the person may decide their spouse is toxic, not worth the effort or the wrong person to be with - the blinders finally coming off - so make the move to separate.
For all 3 categories of people, having trained medical professionals in your corner can be such a blessing. For the latter two categories, their medical professionals may be the only people really in their corner, and may have to take the place of friends and family for social support.
Massage therapists, being helpers by nature, are well positioned to be able to offer hands-on help with some or all of the side effects caused by medical treatments for cancer, as well as providing a listening ear and compassionate heart, thus becoming part of the support network surrounding the patient.
2. Massage Therapists are Part of a Medical Team
One of the first steps that people may go through is figuring out who is on their "team". They may line up professionals who offer skills to support their cancer journey, so they feel well surrounded and with access to the knowledge they need on how best to heal. Primary members of their team are their doctors, oncologists and surgeons.
When people are taking an integrative cancer approach, they blend traditional medical treatments with paramedical practitioners who can support their cancer journey. According to Dr. Véronique Desaulnier (2023) almost 78% of people are now taking an integrative approach to dealing with cancer, and it is showing itself to be the strongest approach to date.
Paramedical practitioners may be massage therapists, chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, traditional chinese medicine doctors, acupuncturists, osteopaths, physiotherapists and more.
When a team of professionals are able to work together for the person's best interest, that person now has access to a myriad of skills, knowledge and techniques for wellbeing and resilience.
Massage therapists who make an active effort to communicate with the other medical team members offers an invaluable service to the patient by understanding the bigger picture, overall treatment approach and educating other team members how they are contributing to the overall treatment plan with massage therapy.
3. Massage Therapy Can Reduce Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Massage therapy can provide assistance with reducing and overcoming side effects of primary treatments, namely surgery and radiation, as well as adjuvant and neoadjuvant therapies, such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
According to Lee et.al. (2015) up to 90% of people experience cancer pain, and massage can reduce cancer pain by 40%. The same study outlines that massage can reduce nausea, fatigue and anxiety caused by cancer treatments.
Field (2016) mentions that foot massage is particularly useful for overcoming post-operative pain. Abdelaziz and Mohammed (2014) go a step farther in describing how foot massage can reduce postoperative pain by closing the gates at the posterior spinal horn so as not to allow noxious (pain) stimuli from entering the central nervous system and registering within the person's brain.
4. Massage Therapy Can Improve Quality of Life
Many of the research articles relating to massage and cancer favour quality of life (QOL) improvements as a major outcome of massage. Now that the breast cancer survival rate is 89%, as compared to 25% in the 1940's (Möller et.al. 2019), QOL becomes a major factor in overall life satisfaction.
This study by Darabpour et.al. (2016) shows the effects of Swedish massage can improve mood disorders, such as anger, depression and anxiety, by decreasing stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) and promoting "feel good" hormones like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. Mood alterations during and after cancer treatments are very common, so having a skill set - one that exists in almost all massage therapist's toolbelt - that can boost mood is exceedingly useful.
Massage is also a viable non-pharmacological method to improve sleep (Kashani, 2014). As we've all heard, "sleep is the best healer" ; during sleep, the body is able to repair itself without the need to divert resources to body functions that operate during wakefulness.
Massage can also help improve altered body image (Bredin, 2001) by offering non-judgemental touch, which provides a doorway into self-acceptance because someone else was able to touch the person with care.
Seeing a massage therapist is an act of self-care that pays dividends to body, mind and soul.
5. Massage Therapy Can Promote Post-Surgical Healing
Given that surgery is a primary treatment for cancer, it is a common experience for people diagnosed with the illness. Cutting out the tumour is one of our main ways of ridding the body of this disease, a procedure which leaves behind scar tissue, swelling, bruising, pain and potential complications.
I believe massage therapy is positioned exceptionally well to help with post-surgical recovery. Since up to 67% of people experience shoulder impairment after breast cancer surgery , leading to pain, numbness, weakness and loss of range of motion (Min et.al. 2021), employing a healing modality like massage therapy to help overcome this common restriction pattern is smart.
Myofascial techniques have found to be very helpful with restoring upper limb mobility following breast cancer surgery, including fascial glides, fascial arm pull, twisting and stretching (Massingill et.al. 2018).
Ensuring scar tissue doesn't become overbearing and restrictive is a very common post-surgical goal for massage therapy. Techniques do not have to be aggressive or deep tissue to be effective, which many patients appreciate. Modulating the amount of collagen laid down in the scar can keep it from overproducing, which can be done by employing just a 10% cyclical skin stretch and release (Smith & Ryan, 2016).
All in all, we have seen 5 ways that massage therapy can assist in a cancer journey. Oncology massage is an arm of massage therapy that requires additional training, so the therapist knows what to do, and what not to do, at different stages of the patient's healing journey.
For patients, seeing an MT who is not afraid to touch them, work with their scars or, if the case may be, be intimidated by a terminal diagnosis can be such a blessing, providing a doorway into hope, healing, self-care and resilience.
Being part of a support network, medical team, assisting with side effects and post-operative recovery, as well as improving quality of life, can significantly change a person's experience moving through cancer for the better, as well as providing a very gratifying and meaningful career for the therapist. Overall, it's a win-win for both parties.
Eryn Price is a registered massage therapist in BC, Canada, and part of the Advance Practice Committee with the RMTBC. Her massage therapy practice revolves around supporting people going through breast cancer surgery, elective breast surgeries and gender affirming top surgery. She teaches continuing education programs both online and in person for therapeutic breast and chest massage, post surgical rehabilitation and post-op complications, and provides virtual self-care programs for patient recovery from breast cancer surgery.
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