Oncology massage is the modification of existing massage techniques in order to safely work with complications of cancer & cancer treatments, according to the Society for Oncology Massage. It is important that therapists working with cancer patients obtain knowledge of cancer & related complications, the location of known tumor sites, cancer progression, commonly used cancer treatments & their side effects. Massage can play a vital role in stress management, pain management, & improved quality of life or cancer patients & their caregivers. 

Many cancer treatments are enormously taxing on the body & may have undesirable side effects. Some of the treatment-related side effects (e.g., hair loss, amputation) can contribute to depression & negative body image. In fact, most modifications massage therapists make are related to cancer treatment side effects. An individual with cancer may receive one or a combination of cancer treatments.

hands holding pink breast cancer awareness ribbon

People living with cancer can benefit greatly from receiving massage. The physical & emotional effects of cancer may be a reason to begin, continue, or increase the frequency of massage therapy sessions. Because the stress involved in dealing with a life-threatening disease can be enormous, massage can play a vital role in stress management, pain management, & improved quality of life. Such is the case not only for the person living with cancer but also for their caregivers.



Massage Considerations: Benefits to Cancer Patients and Caregivers

When an individual receives a diagnosis of cancer, it affects the whole family. Give these individuals & their families the gift of massage therapy by teaching caregivers how to massage their loved ones. Limit the techniques taught to gentle effleurage & convey the same precautions to the caregivers such as avoiding skin lesions & areas containing medical devices such as ports. Teaching massage to family & caregivers has benefits for both the giver & the receiver evidenced by the studies referenced later. Some therapists teach in-services to health care providers to educate them about the benefits of massage & treatment modifications for clients with cancer.

Partner-delivered foot reflexology decreased pain & anxiety in cancer patients (1). Parents who massaged their children with leukemia reported improved mood & decreased depression; white blood cell & neutrophil counts increased in the children who were massaged by their parents (2). Collinge et al (3) provided multilingual instruction to family caregivers of cancer patients in simple touch-based techniques that could be used at home. Significant reductions in symptom severity, decreased stress, & improved quality of life were found among cancer patients. Additionally, caregivers experienced significant gains in confidence, comfort, & self-efficacy after including touch & massage as part of their caregiving.

Spouses of patients with cancer who received back massages experienced decreased stress & improved mood (4). Hazelwood et al (5) concluded that a positive effect was noted in studies that were reviewed regarding cancer patients receiving massage from family caregivers with benefits ranging from decreased symptom intensity in patients, decreased distress for both patients & caregivers, & increased self-efficacy of caregivers.

Massage therapy can be an important part of hospice & palliative care & can provide comfort by promoting relaxation (6), reducing pain (7), lessening depression (8), & improving quality of life (7, 8). Aromatherapy hand massage using a blend of bergamot, lavender, & frankincense reduced pain & depression in hospice patients with terminal cancer (9). Massage therapy & the combination of massage & aromatherapy reduced depression & improved sleep in a hospice setting (10). Meditation & massage improved overall & spiritual quality of life in people with late-stage terminal disease (11). Massage given to primary caregivers in hospice settings reported reduced physical & emotional stress, physical pain, & fewer sleep difficulties (12).


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Articles and Journals Referenced:

  1. Stephenson, N.L., Swanson, M., Dalton, J. et al. (2007). Partner-delivered reflexology: effects on cancer pain and anxiety. Oncol Nurs Forum. 34(1):127-32.
  2. Field, T., Cullen, C., Diego, M. et al. (2001). Leukemia immune changes following massage therapy. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 5(4), 271-274.
  3. Collinge, W., Kahn, J., Walton, T., et al. (2013). Touch, caring, and cancer: Randomized controlled trial of a multimedia caregiver education program. Support Care Cancer. 21(5), 1405–14.
  4. Goodfellow, L.M. (2003). The effects of therapeutic back massage on psychophysiologic variables and immune function in spouses of patients with cancer. Nurs Res. 52(5):318-28.
  5. Hazelwood, D.M., Koeck, S., Wallner, M., et al. (2012) Patients with cancer and family caregivers: management of symptoms caused by cancer or cancer therapy at home. HeilberufeScience. 3(4): 149–158.  
  6. Meek, S.S. (1993). Effects of slow stroke back massage on relaxation in hospice clients. Image J Nurs. Sch. 25(1). 17-21.
  7. Kutner, J.S., Smith, M.C., Corbin, L., et al. (2008). Massage therapy versus simple touch to improve pain and mood in patients with advanced cancer: A randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 149(6):369-79.
  8. Wilkie, D.J., Kampbell, J., Cutshall, S., et al. (2000). Effects of massage on pain intensity, analgesics and quality of life in patients with cancer pain: A pilot study of a randomized clinical trial conducted within hospice care delivery. Hosp J. 15(3):31-53.
  9. Chang, S.Y. (2008). Effects of aroma hand massage on pain, state anxiety and depression in hospice patients with terminal cancer. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 38(4):493-502.
  10. Soden, K., Vincent, K., Craske, S., et al., (2004). A randomized controlled trial of aromatherapy massage in a hospice setting. Palliat Med. 18(2):87-92.
  11. Williams, A.L., Selwyn, P.A., Liberti, L., et al., (2005). A randomized controlled trial of meditation and massage effects on quality of life in people with late-stage disease: A pilot study. J Palliat Med. 8(5):939-52.
  12. MacDonald, G. (1998). Massage offers respite for primary care givers. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 15(1):43-7.


Susan Salvo is a board certified massage therapist with 30+ years of experience. Susan is passionate about massage therapy and massage education. You can contact her at susansalvo@hotmail.com.