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How can massage help cancer patients?

Massage for Cancer Patients

Many people are concerned about the safety of massage during cancer treatment.  Evidence does not support the theory that massage is or can be harmful.  Adapted massage has many benefits, which are supported by evidence and research as well as anecdotal experiences. Here are the benefits of receiving massage to those going through cancer treatment:

Short – term benefits

  • Reduced anxiety, depressed mood and anger in breast cancer patients 1, 2, 4, 9
  • Increased vigor 2 (breast cancer patients)
  • Reduced mood disturbances and perceived stress levels
  • Improved sleep quality 4, 9
  • Improved quality of life 4 (breast cancer patients)
  • Reduced pain and improvement of mood, reduced stress levels 5, 9
  • Reduced perception of pain, nausea and increased relaxation after 10 minutes (5 minutes per foot) foot massage 6
  • Pain intensity, pulse rate, and respiratory rate, significantly reduced immediately after the massages.
  • At study entry, the massage group reported higher pain intensity, which decreased by 42% (25% reduction in the control group). 7
  • Reduced anxiety scores, depression, general fatigue, reduced motivation fatigue, and emotional fatigue 8
  • Reduced depression and improved sleep 10
  • Reduced heart rate 11 and lower blood pressure 11
  • Decrease in physical discomfort, group fatigue, and mood disturbance. The effect of massage on mood disturbances was greater when treated continuously by the same therapist. 12 

Long-term benefits

  • Reduced depression and hostility, increased urinary dopamine, serotonin values, natural killer cell number and lymphocytes in breast cancer patients 1, 2
  • Reduced mood disturbances and perceived stress levels 3 (breast cancer patients)

There appears to be no evidence to suggest that adapted massage carried out by specialist massage therapists is potentially harmful to those going through treatment for cancer.  Macmillan have published the following advice, as have Cancer Research UK.

“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….” 13

“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.” 14

Cancer Research UK suggest the following as possible side-effects of massage for those going through treatment for cancer:

“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.” 14

Both charities emphasise the need for cancer patients to visit specialist trained massage therapists who are able to adapt the massage to meet the needs of their client. 13, 14


  1. Hernandez-Reif, M., Ironson, G., Field, T., Katz, G., Diego, M., Weiss, S., Fletcher, M., Schanberg, S. & Kuhn, C. (2003).  Breast cancer patients have improved immune functions following massage therapy.  Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 45-52.
  2. Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., Ironson, G., Beutler, J., Vera, Y., Hurley, J., Fletcher, M., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., & Fraser, M. (2005).  Natural killer cells and lymphocytes increase in women with breast cancer following massage therapy.  International Journal of Neuroscience, 115, 495-510.
  3. Listing, M., Krohn, M., Liezmann, C., Kim, I., Reisshauer, A., Peters, E., Lapp, B.F. & Rauchfuss, M. (2010). The efficacy of classical massage on stress perception and cortisol following primary treatment of breast cancer.
  4. Sturgeon, M., Wetta-Hall, R., Hart, T., Good, M., & Dakhil, S. (2009).  Effects of therapeutic massage on the quality of life among patients with breast cancer during treatment. Journal of Complementary Medicine, 15, 373-380.
  5. Hodgson, N.A., & Lafferty, D. (2012). Reflexology versus Swedish Massage to Reduce Physiologic Stress and Pain and Improve Mood in Nursing Home Residents with Cancer: A Pilot Trial.  Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012, 5 pages
  6. Grealish, L., Lomasney, A., & Whiteman, B. (2000). Foot massage.  A nursing intervention to modify the distressing symptoms of pain and nausea in patients hospitalized with cancer.  Cancer Nursing, 23, 237-243.
  7. Wilkie, D.J., Kampbell, J., Cutshall, S., Halabisky, H., Harmon, H., Johnson, L.P., Weinacht, L., & Rake-Marona, M. (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.  Hospice Journal, 15, 31-53.
  8. Rexilius, S.J., Mundt, C., Erickson Megel, M., & Agrawal, S. (2002). Therapeutic effects of massage therapy and handling touch on caregivers of patients undergoing autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Oncology Nursing Forum, 29,  35-44.
  9. Smith, M.C., Kemp, J., Hemphill, L., & Vojir, C.P. (2002).  Outcomes of therapeutic massage for hospitalized cancer patients. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 34, 257-262.
  10. Soden, K., Vincent, K., Craske, S., Lucas, C., & Ashley, S. (2004).  A randomized controlled trial of aromatherapy massage in a hospice setting.  Palliate Medicine, 18, 87-92.
  11. Billhut, A., Lindholm, C., Gunnarsson, R., Stener-Victorin, E. (2009). The effect of massage on immune function and stress in women with breast cancer – a randomized controlled trial.  Autonomic Neuroscience, 150,  111-115.
  12. Massage therapy reduces physcial discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer.  Psycononcology, 18, 1290-1299.
  13. accessed 12th April 2015.
  14. accessed 12th April 2014.
  15. Corbin L Safety and Efficacy of Massage Therapy for Patients With Cancer.  Cancer Control 2005:12: 158-164.
  16. Massage therapy for people with lymphoma LYM0071/Massage/2013v2 accessed 28.3.15