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  • Monika Getty

Massage Therapy and Cancer

Cancer: it's a big, scary word that we hear all too often now. Most people know someone that has had cancer, whether it's a co-worker, friend, family member or even have experienced it themselves. The treatment of cancer is aggressive and hard on the body, understandably so, for it's trying to eradicate those cells to hopefully give us back health and longevity. Complementary therapies can also help in making those with cancer more comfortable while undergoing this difficult process.

Massage Therapy is considered a type of complementary therapy; along with other complementary therapies, the aim is to treat the whole person, not just their symptoms. Massage is often used in conjunction with (not instead of) conventional medicine, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery or drug therapy. While massage doesn’t treat the cancer itself, it can help reduce the side effects caused by conventional treatments, improving quality of life and promoting a sense of well-being.

As well as improving physical symptoms, some people with cancer say that having a massage

makes them feel whole again, helps them to relax, helps them share their feelings in a supportive setting, makes them feel more positive about their body and can help to rebuild hope.

One of the main reasons people with cancer use Massage Therapy is because it helps them feel good and makes them feel it is something they can do to help themselves.

Receiving a massage treatment has a host of advantages when you’re going through cancer treatment. It relieves stress, increases mental clarity and helps you relax, according to the Society for Oncology Massage. A calming massage can also reduce nausea and pain, as well as improving your mood. A massage during cancer treatment can help anxiety following chemotherapy or before surgery and help to reduce post-surgical pain and swelling.

Mental benefits of a massage include increased feelings of well-being, decreased rates of depression and restored hope. People undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer reported that receiving a massage lessened their anxiety, reduced their nausea and even decreased their fatigue, according to a study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice.

Massage can also help with problems sleeping, improving sleep quality and reducing cancer fatigue. While not a life-threatening symptom, fatigue is one of the more frustrating symptoms for people with cancer, sometimes persisting for years after treatment has been completed. A 2018 study published in the journal Cancer found that Swedish massage resulted in significant improvement in cancer-related fatigue for people with stage 0 to stage III breast cancer.

Some of the most common areas for people undergoing cancer treatment to get massaged are the hands, feet, scalp, and shoulders; these are less invasive spots than other places on your body that can still have a positive impact on the rest of your body. You might be thinking, "Can a hand or foot massage really make that much difference?" The answer is yes. People undergoing chemotherapy who received a 20 minute hand massage reported significant improvement in fatigue, anxiety, muscular discomfort, nervousness, stress, happiness, energy, relaxation, calmness and emotional well-being, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Science and Healing.

So is Massage Therapy safe for people with cancer? Yes, provided you work within certain guidelines. Light, relaxing massage can safely be given to people at all stages of cancer, always working within a persons comfort level. Tumour or treatment sites should not be massaged to avoid discomfort or pressure on the affected area and underlying organs. Other contraindications to massage include: known blood clots, such as a diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary emboli; infection, especially if a fever is present; severely low white blood cell count; severely low platelet counts and severe swelling. Massage Therapy treatment should also avoid sites of active tumour growth, areas around a recent incision and any areas where an open wound or sore is present. During chemotherapy, deep tissue massage should be avoided even if blood counts are all normal. It is also wise to avoid massaging an area that has been directly irradiated. Skin changes to radiated areas include redness, dryness and irritation. Think of it as a deep burn, much like a sunburn; even very light touch can be irritating to these areas so it's best to avoid until fully healed.

Some people worry that massage can spread cancer cells throughout the body by increasing circulation and/or via the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, organs and nodes through which lymphatic fluid flows. It is part of the body’s immune system and lymphatic circulation occurs naturally as we move. Cancer may spread into the lymphatic system via the lymph nodes, or it may start in the lymphatic system itself. However, the circulation of lymph, whether from massage or other movement, does NOT cause cancer to spread. Researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA and other processes in the body and that the speed of blood or lymph fluid circulation has nothing to do with the spread of cancer cells.

Cancer is a terrible disease, striking both young and old. While massage can't cure cancer, it can help to bring comfort and ease to those experiencing it, as well as their caregivers. A little comfort and kindness can make a world of difference to someone, even if it's just for a few moments, and that is worth more than anything.

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