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  • Monika Getty

Massage Therapy and Cancer

Cancer. The Big C. Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, whether it's a family member, friend, co-worker, or possibly have experienced it themselves; it seems no one is unaffected by this disease.

People with cancer experience an array of debilitating symptoms both from their treatment and from the disease itself. These symptoms can include clotting abnormalities, immune suppression, infection, fatigue, nausea, digestive disturbances, skin lesions and pain. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment options can be surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, drugs as well as alternative healthcare methods.

Pain is one of the most common symptoms in people with cancer and can be acute or chronic. The management of pain is not limited to just drugs; in fact, non-pharmacological approaches to managing cancer pain, like Massage Therapy, are increasingly being recommended by doctors. A recent study examined the effects of therapeutic massage on pain perception, anxiety, and relaxation levels in hospitalized patients experiencing significant cancer pain. Questionnaires as well as testing the patients heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure, were administered before and after receiving massage treatment. Overall, Massage Therapy significantly reduced their level of pain perception and anxiety, while enhancing their feelings of relaxation.

Another study done over a 3 year period treating over a thousand patients found that after receiving massage treatment, patients reported an average 40% decrease in pain and fatigue, over 50% decrease in anxiety, a 30% decrease in depression and a 21% decrease in nausea. This may be due to the fact that Massage Therapy has been shown to not only decrease cortisol (a stress hormone), but it also increases both serotonin and dopamine which can improve mood.

A study involving breast cancer patients had a control group receiving therapeutic massage before a chemotherapy infusion. It concluded that massage successfully prevented chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathic pain (also seen objectively in nerve conduction studies) and improved quality of life.

An old myth warned that because massage can increase general circulation, it could spread cancer cells, since tumor cells travel through blood and lymph channels. Recent evidence suggests that the speed of blood or lymph fluid circulation has nothing to do with the spread of cancer cells; Massage Therapy is safe for people with cancer. Dr. Ann LaCasce, a physician in the Adult Lymphoma Program at Dana-Farber states that "Manipulating tissue does not cause tumor cells to move." Although massage does increase circulation, there are many metabolic processes and physical activities, such as exercise, that increase circulation more than a massage ever would, and there are strong associations between exercise and improved health outcomes and increased cancer survival.

There are some things to keep in mind before getting a therapeutic massage if you are undergoing cancer treatment. Be sure to tell your Massage Therapist that you have cancer, any treatments that you have had or are having, and any medicines that you’re taking. Therapy will avoid sites of active tumor growth. If you have damaged blood vessels or a bleeding disorder, such as bleeding or blood clots, massage may be contraindicated until the problem has been medically resolved. If you are taking blood thinners, have osteoporosis or a cancer that has spread to the bone, you should only have very gentle, light touch massage to prevent bruising, bleeding and other complications. Do not have a massage if you have a fever or infection. If you have an open wound or sore, the therapist will not treat that area. If you are receiving chemotherapy, you should wait a few days before getting a massage and not near the area of the infusion or port. With chemotherapy, your skin and blood vessels may become more fragile so a gentler touch is needed.

When it comes to radiation therapy, it is usually given externally, directly to the tumor site or to areas where the cancer might have spread. In the "on" phase of a treatment program, the skin and other normal tissues are being damaged and has a progressive nature due to the slow release of free radicals in the affected tissues (like the way a sunburn develops during the day or so after exposure). Therefore, the use of massage on the irradiated area (entrance and exit sites) should be avoided for a few weeks to avoid the risk of increasing the burn damage. The use of certain lubricants on the treated area are contraindicated because they can leave a coating that can intensify the effects of radiation to the skin. Radiation can also be given internally, usually via a sealed implant. Internal application of radiation allows a more concentrated dose to be delivered at a specific site, such as the prostate or thyroid. Patients will be in the hospital, usually for less than a week, when receiving treatment with a highly radioactive material. During this time, the person will be isolated because their body is radioactive, so massage is contraindicated for the safety of the therapist.

Massage Therapy can offer cancer patients not only some relief from pain, but help to reduce their stress and anxiety as well. It can improve coping and enhance quality of life. It can strengthen the experience of deep relaxation and help to enhance meditation or visualization for some people. Touch is important during illness, as it can express care, reassurance and support, and sometimes that is all you need.

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