About massage therapy

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

A massage therapist can massage the whole body, or focus on one area such as the hands, face, shoulders or feet. This means you do not always need to remove clothing to have a massage.

How massage therapy can help if I have cancer

There are different types of massage therapy. The type of massage a therapist recommends will depend on why it is being given.

Massage can be used to:

  • relax your mind and body
  • improve your mood
  • relieve tension and pain in muscles or tissue
  • improve circulation.

Some studies of people with cancer suggest that massage therapy may also help reduce anxiety, depression and fatigue.

Manual lymphatic drainage for people with cancer

There is also a type of massage that can improve circulation in the lymphatic system. This is called manual lymphatic drainage. The lymphatic system helps protect us from infection and disease. It drains lymph fluid from the tissues of the body before returning it to the blood. Manual lymphatic drainage encourages lymph to drain out of the affected area and into an area that drains normally.

We have more information about lymphatic drainage for lymphoedema.

Having massage therapy

Massages can be soft and gentle, or more active. Some may be uncomfortable. Cancer doctors and complementary therapists usually advise you to try gentle massage and avoid vigorous, deep tissue massage. Your massage therapist can change the pressure for your comfort.

Massages can last for different lengths of time. During cancer treatment, your cancer doctor may advise you not to have a massage that lasts longer than 20 minutes.

Is it safe to have a massage if I have cancer?

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

If a massage therapist is not sure about where on your body it is safe to massage, they might choose to massage your hands or feet instead. The massage therapist must also be properly trained and qualified to treat people with cancer. They should have some knowledge of cancer and its treatments. They can sometimes teach family members or friends how to do basic massages, so they can support you at home.

During your touch therapy, it is important to avoid massage in certain areas. This includes:

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

It is also important to be particularly gentle if:

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

You can contact the General Council for Massage Therapies (GCMT) to find a trained massage therapist.

About other touch based therapies

There are many different types of touch-based therapy including shiatsu, acupressure, reflexology and therapeutic touch.

These therapies are based on the idea that everyone has a special type of energy (chi or qi) that can be used to give health benefits. This comes from the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

There is no evidence that this type of energy exists, or that it can have any effect on cancer. But, some people find these therapies relaxing and calming.

Some of these therapies do not use any, or use very little, physical contact. Others involve applying massage or pressure to certain areas of the body.

These therapies are available in some hospitals. If you are looking for them somewhere other than in a hospital, it is important to check that the therapist or practitioner is trained, registered and insured.

A therapy called aromatherapy is sometimes thought of as touch-based. We have more information about aromatherapy in the section on plant-based therapies.

Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a type of Japanese massage. Therapists believe that health depends on the balanced flow of energy through certain channels in the body. Their theory is that applying pressure with a finger or hand on these channels helps restore the balance of energy. They may also gently stretch or hold areas of the body to reduce stiffness and soreness.

In a study of people with cancer who had Shiatsu in an NHS hospital, the people who took part said they felt less anxious and more relaxed after it. The reasons they gave for this included:

  • spending time with the therapist
  • being listened to
  • being in a calm atmosphere during the therapy
  • aking time to do something nice for themselves.

As with other types of massage, it is important to think about your safety during the massage.

Acupressure

Acupressure is based on the same beliefs as Shiatsu and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) around an energy in the body. The therapist applies pressure on specific areas of the body with the aim of helping a problem elsewhere in the body. The therapist can teach you how to do this to yourself, so you can continue the treatment at home.

One type of acupressure applies pressure on an acupressure point on the inner wrist. The point is called P6. Studies suggest that this may help reduce nausea after surgery. Pressure can be applied with fingers or wristbands.

Small studies have found that acupressure may also reduce fatigue. There is very little medical evidence to show that acupressure helps with any other symptoms.

Reflexology

Reflexology is a type of foot or hand massage. The reflexologist applies gentle pressure to specific points on the feet or hands. This is based on the belief that different areas on the feet or hands represent, and are connected to, different parts of the body. But, there is no evidence to support this belief.

Many people say they feel more relaxed after reflexology, and use it to help reduce stress and anxiety.

A session lasts around 30 minutes. If you feel any discomfort during the session, tell your therapist.

Some reflexologists 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 that it has any of these effects. So 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 that 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 that was developed in Japan. You sit or lie down, and the therapist gently places their hands on or just above your body. They move their hands into a sequence of positions that cover most of the body. You do not need to remove any clothing. Each position is held for around 2 to 5 minutes, or until the they feel the flow of energy has slowed or stopped. The Reiki Association has more information.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our complementary therapies information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Cassilieth B. The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care: Essential Information for Patients Survivors and Health Professionals. 2011. 

    Ernst E, et al. Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine. 2008. 
         

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by Dr Saul Berkovitz.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.