Massage therapy | Cancer Research UK
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What massage therapy is

Massage therapy is a system of treatment that works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body. It aims to relax you mentally and physically. It has been used for centuries. Massage may concentrate on the muscles, the soft tissues, or on the acupuncture points.

There are several types of massage

  • Swedish massage – most common type of all over body massage
  • Aromatherapy massage
  • Deep tissue massage – used for long standing, deep muscular problems
  • Sports massage – used before or after sport or to help heal sports injuries
  • Shiatsu
  • Neuromuscular massage – helps to balance the nervous system and the muscle
  • Reflexology – applied to points on the hands and feet with the aim of improving the health of other parts of the body

Massage techniques can range from being soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk. They may sometimes even be a bit uncomfortable. 

Gentler forms of massage such as aromatherapy affect your nerve endings, possibly releasing chemicals called endorphins and reducing sensations of pain. 

Stronger methods, such as Swedish massage, aim to stimulate your blood circulation and lymphatic system, relax muscles and ease knotted tissues that can cause pain and stiffness.

Massage therapists may treat your whole body, or concentrate on a specific part of the body such as your head, neck or shoulders. Some types of massage such as shiatsu may also gently stretch parts of your body to release stiffness.


Why people with cancer use massage therapy

One of the main reasons that people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good. It is a way they feel they can help themselves. Massage for people with cancer is promoted as a natural way to help you relax and cope with

Generally, massage therapy can help lift your mood, improve your sleep and enhance your well being. There is some evidence to help support these benefits.


What having massage involves

On your first visit for a massage, the therapist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. If they are concerned that massage may interfere with your health or any medicines you are taking, they may ask if they can contact your GP. This is to check that your GP is happy for you to have massage. In general, it is rare that your doctor will say no. 

If you have shiatsu massage you normally lie on soft mats on the floor, fully clothed. With most other massage therapies, you lie on a massage couch (table) for your treatment. You may need to take off your clothes, except for your underwear. Your therapist will then cover you in a gown or large towels, exposing only the parts of your body that they are working on. If you are having a whole body treatment you will lie face down for the first half, and on your back for the rest of the treatment.

Most massage sessions usually last an hour, but this can depend on your therapist. Your therapist might play some relaxing music during the session.

The amount of pressure your therapist applies when massaging you can vary greatly between the types of massage. It is important that you let your therapist know if you feel uncomfortable and want them to stop at any time. However, most people say that having a massage is very relaxing and soothing.

Remember that your therapist should never massage your genital area or touch you in what you feel is a sexual way. If you are uncomfortable at any time during your massage you can stop the session and leave. 

You can read our information about stopping a therapy or changing therapists.


Research into massage in people with cancer

There is no scientific evidence that massage can treat cancer. But massage is commonly used to help people feel better and to reduce some of the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment.

Our sections about aromatherapy, reflexology and shiatsu contain information about the use of these specific types of massage therapy. 

Trials have been carried out to find out whether massage can help people with cancer but many are small studies. They include massage for

Symptoms in people with cancer

A 2009 review carried out in the UK looked at 14 trials that used classical massage for symptoms in people with cancer. The reviewers suggested that massage can help to reduce symptoms such as pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue). But the quality of some trials was poor. So the reviewers say that overall it is not possible to be sure whether massage can help with symptoms in people with cancer.

In 2008, in Taiwan, reviewers looked at 15 studies that used massage to reduce cancer pain. They also found that although some studies seemed to show that massage helped, the evidence was unclear due to the poor quality of some studies.

An American review in 2008 looked at 22 studies that used massage to treat pain, tiredness (fatigue), anxiety, feeling sick, and depression. They also found that it was difficult to be sure that massage worked due to the poor quality of some studies. The strongest evidence was that massage did seem to lower anxiety.

Reviewers in the UK in 2008 looked at 10 trials that used massage for people with cancer. They found that the trials suggested that massage could help to reduce anxiety in people with cancer in the short term. It may also reduce some of the physical symptoms of cancer, such as pain and feeling sick. But again the poor quality of some of the research made it impossible to be sure. This review is currently being carried out again and will include more recent trials of better quality.

Women with breast cancer

In 2011, UK reviewers looked specifically at trials using massage for women with breast cancer. There were 6 trials and the reviewers said that massage seems useful as a supportive therapy. It seemed to help with symptoms of depression, pain and tiredness. But the number of trials was small and so we need bigger studies to know how helpful massage may be as a supportive treatment for breast cancer.

In 2009, a German trial looked at massage therapy for physical discomfort and mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. 86 women took part in the study and half had massage and half did not. Women in the massage group reported less pain, tiredness and discomfort and less mood disturbances. The researchers reported that classical massage seems to be a helpful treatment for women after breast surgery.

People with advanced cancer

In 2011, Italian researchers looked at the use of massage in people with advanced cancer. They studied 20 trials and felt that massage therapy is a cost effective treatment that can help to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in people with cancer who are seriously ill.


Research into teaching massage to carers

In 2012, an American study looked at teaching carers to give simple massage to people with cancer. The carers were given a DVD and a manual with instructions about how to give massage. They were advised to practice at least 3 times a week. Another group of carers were advised to read to the person with cancer at least 3 times a week. The study found that patients in both groups had significant reductions in symptoms. But there was more reduction in the massage group. 

The carers trained to give massage showed more confidence, comfort and skill in using touch and massage at the end of the study.


Possible side effects of massage

Most people don’t have any side effects from having a massage. You may feel a bit light headed, sleepy, tired or thirsty afterwards. Your massage therapist may advise you to drink a glass of water when your treatment has finished and if you feel thirsty. They usually allow you to get ready to leave in your own time so that you don't have to rush.

Some people find that they feel a bit emotional or tearful for a while afterwards.


Who shouldn’t use massage therapy

In some situations, massage techniques may need to be adapted. This may apply if you

  • Are having cancer treatment
  • Are very weak
  • Have bone fractures
  • Have heart problems
  • Suffer from arthritis
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding

So always talk to your doctor or clinical nurse specialist before using any type of massage therapy offered commercially. It may be that an adapted treatment offered within a cancer care centre or hospice would be appropriate for you. It is important to make sure that your massage therapist is fully qualified and insured. 

People with cancer should avoid very deep massage. Gentler types may be safer. Some people worry that having a massage when you have cancer may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body. No research has proved this to be true.

If you are having radiotherapy you should avoid massaging the treated area. And don’t have massage to any area of your body where the skin is broken, bleeding or bruised.

You should also avoid general massage therapy to your arms or legs if they are swollen because of lymphoedema. However, there is a particular type of massage used for lymphoedema called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). This is a very specialised treatment and people who need MLD are referred to a lymphoedema specialist by their doctor or specialist nurse.

You can read our information about lymphoedema and manual lymphatic drainage.


The cost of massage therapy

Private massage treatments usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 30 to 90 minute session. 

Many cancer centres and hospitals in the UK now offer patients different types of massage therapy free of charge. Therapists working in these centres are likely to have completed additional training and have ongoing supervision for their work. 

Ask your nurse or doctor if massage therapy is available in the ward or centre where you are having your treatment. If these therapies aren’t available, the ward staff may be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that offers people with cancer complementary therapy treatments free or at a reduced cost.


Finding a therapist

It is very important that you have your treatments with a qualified and insured therapist. To find a qualified and registered massage therapist you can contact one of the organisations listed below and ask for a list of therapists in your area. 

You can ask the therapist the following questions

  • How many years of training have they had
  • How long have they been practicing
  • Have they treated cancer patients before
  • Have they had extra training to work with people who have cancer and are having cancer treatment
  • Do they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

There are a few different massage organisations. 

General Council for Massage Therapy
The General Council for Massage Therapy is a group of organisations working together to develop a common set of practice and training standards. They aim to have one professional body holding a register of UK massage therapists. They have details of all the massage therapy organisations that are members on their website.

Phone: 0870 850 4452

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC)
CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners and covers massage therapists. Its key function is to enhance public protection by giving the general public access to a list of practitioners who have been assessed as meeting national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners are able to use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials.

Phone: 020 3668 0406

The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT)
18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
SO50 4SR
Phone: 023 8062 4350

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the leading professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

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Updated: 12 January 2015