What are massage and touch therapies?

Massage is a form of structured or therapeutic touch. Massage is often offered as part of cancer care in cancer centres, hospices, community health services and some GP surgeries. It can be carried out by specialist massage therapists, physiotherapists, nurses and complementary practitioners.

Other touch-based therapies include shiatsu and acupressure, reflexology and therapeutic touch. They are based on the theory derived from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that everyone has a special type of energy that can be worked on for health benefits. There is no evidence that this type of energy exists or that it can have any effect on the cancer. But some people find these therapies relaxing and calming.

About massage therapy

There are many types of massage. Some are soft and gentle, while others are more active. Cancer doctors and complementary therapists will usually advise you to try gentle massage and avoid vigorous, deep tissue massage. Massage therapy can be used to relax your mind and body, relieve tension and enhance your mood.

Massage therapists working with people with cancer must be properly trained and qualified. They should have some knowledge of cancer and its treatments.

Some people worry that massage could cause cancer cells to spread to other parts of their body. Research has not found any evidence of this, but massage therapists will avoid any areas affected by cancer, such as tumour sites or lymph nodes. Talk to your cancer doctor or nurse if you are worried.

It is important to take some precautions. During your therapy, it is important to avoid massage:

  • directly over a tumour or lymph nodes (glands) affected by cancer - lymph nodes are part of the immune system and help to filter germs and disease
  • to areas that are bruised or sensitive
  • to areas being treated with radiotherapy, during treatment and for a few weeks after it finishes
  • around intravenous catheters (such as central lines) and pain relief patches
  • to areas affected by blood clots, poor circulation or varicose veins.

It is also important to be particularly gentle if:

  • cancer has spread to your bones
  • you have a low platelet count (platelets are cells that help the blood to clot).

If you tend to bleed or bruise easily, or have cancer in your bones, speak to your cancer doctor before having massage therapy.

Shiatsu and acupressure

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage. Acupressure is very similar as therapists use their hands or elbows to apply pressure to certain areas of the body. Therapists believe that health depends on the balanced flow of energy through certain channels in the body. Their theory is that placing pressure on these channels helps restore energy balance. They may also gently stretch or hold areas of the body to reduce stiffness and soreness.

A recent study showed that acupressure was able to reduce fatigue in women who had been treated for breast cancer. However there is very little medical evidence to show that shiatsu or acupressure helps with any other symptoms. But many people still find it a relaxing or uplifting experience.

As with other types of massage, it is important to take some precautions.

Reflexology

Reflexology is a form of foot or hand massage similar to acupressure. Reflexologists believe different areas on the feet or hands represent, and are connected to, different parts of the body.

They apply gentle pressure to specific points on the feet or hands. The aim is to help you feel more relaxed.

Reflexology has been used to try to improve symptoms related to cancer or its treatment, such as feeling sick (nausea) and pain. There is no evidence to prove that it is effective when used in this way. But some evidence shows that reflexology can help people feel more relaxed and many people use it to help ease stress and anxiety.

Some practitioners may claim that reflexology can help to diagnose health problems, improve symptoms, such as feeling sick (nausea) and prevent illnesses. But, there is no convincing evidence it has any of these effects. And, reflexology should not be used in this way as part of cancer care.

Therapeutic touch

In therapeutic touch, the therapist uses touch or works just above the surface of the body. They believe this affects an energy field surrounding each person and they can act as a channel for the healing energy.

There is no medical evidence to show it helps with symptoms or side effects. Some people feel that therapeutic touch gives them valuable support. When it is used in a religious or spiritual way, it is called spiritual or faith healing.

Reiki is another type of therapeutic touch developed in Japan. You sit or lie down and the therapist gently places their hands on or just above your body. They use a sequence of positions that cover most of the body. You do not need to remove any clothing. Each position is held for about 2 to 5 minutes or until the therapist feels the flow of energy has slowed or stopped.