QUESTION

I’ve heard that massage isn’t safe for people with cancer. My wife got massages before her diagnosis and wants to continue. Is that advisable?

ANSWER

Yes, your wife—and anyone living with cancer—can receive massage. The physical and emotional effects of cancer and cancer treatments may be a reason to begin, continue or even increase the frequency of massage sessions. Massage is an enjoyable experience and can play a major role in bringing comfort to someone who is going through a difficult time.

Some people have questioned the safety of massage due to a widely held misconception that massage can cause cancer to spread. But that’s not true. In fact, the American Cancer Society and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, a not-for-profit alliance of leading cancer centers, recommend the use of massage, as long as precautions (described below) are observed. Many cancer centers offer massage to their patients and teach massage to patient caregivers, including spouses and adult children.

Research has shown that massage reduces muscle tension and stiffness, pain and discomfort, anxiety, fatigue and shortness of breath in cancer patients. Massage can also improve sleep, reduce depression and boost quality of life in cancer patients. In addition, studies suggest that massage can decrease neuropathy, reduce nausea and vomiting and lessen lymphedema (swelling in an arm or leg) related to medical procedures such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. In the research described above, the frequency of massage varied—study participants may have received a 30-minute massage once daily, biweekly or weekly.

Before receiving massage, cancer patients should speak with their doctors and get a referral to a qualified massage practitioner. In the US, state licensure is mandatory for massage therapists in most states, and practitioners must meet certain educational requirements. In addition, people with cancer should seek out massage practitioners who have credentials beyond licensure such as national board certification and specialty training in oncology massage. To find such a massage therapist nearby check the database of the Society for Oncology Massage.

When your wife arrives for her massage appointment, she should inform the practitioner of her goals for massage therapy and the type of cancer she has (as well as any known tumor sites and metastases). She should also tell the massage therapist about the cancer treatments she has received, including surgery, side effects of those treatments and locations of any implanted devices, such a port that is used for administer chemotherapy, intravenous fluids and blood transfusions. In addition, your wife should be sure to disclose any restrictions placed on her by her doctor. This may include, for example, lying in a semi-reclining position to promote ease of breathing or avoiding right-shoulder movements because of a recently implanted port on the right upper torso.

Important: Certain types of massage, such as hand and foot massage, are more appropriate for hospital or clinical settings, or for frail and elderly individuals. During subsequent appointments, you wife should notify the massage practitioner of any changes in her treatment so that these can be factored into the massage therapy she receives. If prescribed by a health-care provider, insurance may cover the cost of massage for cancer patients, while some individuals use their health savings accounts to pay for these services.