Massage May Help You Cope with Breast Cancer

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • When I was in chemotherapy, I asked my oncologist whether it would be OK for me to have a massage for relaxation.  He thought it would be fine.  An oncology nurse recommended a massage therapist with a nursing background, and off I went for a massage.  


    But the massage therapist was reluctant to do a massage on a cancer patient.  She worried about moving the chemo toxins around through my body, and possibly moving the cancer around.  I assured her that my medical people were on board, and she reluctantly gave me a light massage.


    Move forward 14 years after treatment.  The physical therapist working on me for pain from adhesions and scar tissue on my chest told me that regular massage might be helpful for reducing the problem.  I found a massage therapist who was knowledgeable about working with people with a cancer history and who has been helping me now for two years.

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    Part of the difference was that I was no longer in active cancer treatment and part is a new appreciation for the role of massage in helping cancer patients.  Fears that massage could move the cancer throughout the body have been disproved, and doctors are seeing more patients who have benefited from massage.


    How massage helps.


    Massage can reduce pain, stress and anxiety.  The scientific studies demonstrating this are small, but common sense says that being more relaxed helps people cope with cancer treatments.  A light, relaxing back massage can reduce tension enough that a patient may need less medication and have less nausea.


    Massage can reduce adhesions and problems with scar tissue.  Following surgery, the body forms scars to heal the incision area, but sometimes it goes too far and connects layers of tissue that should be separate.  These adhesions can be painful and can get worse over time.  Massage can break up the scar tissue and keep the chest and shoulder area limber.


    Massage can help with lymphedema.  One complication that often follows breast surgery or radiation is lymphedema.  This problem occurs when the body can no longer efficiently move lymphatic fluid because some lymph nodes have been removed during surgery or damaged by radiation.  Fluid builds up causing swelling.  For breast cancer patients this swelling is usually in the arm or the trunk.  A trained lymphedema specialist uses a special form of massage called manual lymphatic drainage as one important part of treating lymphedema.  


    Problems that Might Occur


    Although the idea that massage spreads cancer has been disproven, direct massage on a tumor is not advised.


    A cancer patient may react to ingredients in massage creams and oils.  This happened to me.  My skin is much more sensitive than it used to be, and fragrances make me sneeze.  I always ask for unscented lotions.  


    Cancer patients often bruise more easily.  Massage for cancer patients should be light.  Chemotherapy lowers blood counts, so a massage therapist trained to work with cancer patients doesn’t do deep tissue work.  Patients who are taking any type of blood thinner might not be candidates for massage therapy and should discuss whether massage is appropriate with their doctor before going for a massage.


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    Massage could cause problems in the bones or joints.  Again deep tissue massage isn’t a good idea for people with a cancer history.  Medicines and/or metastasis of the cancer to the bones can weaken bones leading to the possibility of a fracture from too much pressure during a massage.


    Finding a massage therapist.


    If you are interested in trying massage, it is important to find a therapist who understands the issues women with a breast cancer history have.  An untrained person could actually worsen lymphedema or not know the precautions needed for cancer patients.  Many cancer centers now have massage as part of the services offered, so if you are lucky enough to live near a large cancer center, you could start there.  Asking nurses or physical therapists for a recommendation can also be helpful.  The Society for Oncology Massage has an excellent list of questions to ask once you find a therapist you might want to work with.  


    Ask about what special training the therapist has had for working with cancer patients and how much experience he or she has.  If you want massage to manage lymphedema, you need to be sure that the therapist has been certified to do manual lymphatic drainage.  Ask about the modifications the therapist will make because of your cancer.   You want to hear a knowledgeable discussion of how the therapist will treat YOU with your unique requirements.  The therapist should be asking you questions about your medical history.  A therapist who doesn’t take a complete history is probably not for you.  A good therapist will also want to know that you have gotten your doctor’s approval for massage and discussed any potential problems with the doctor. 


    Whether you just want to relax or have specific cancer-related problems that need attention, massage might help you.  Talk over your specific risks and benefits with your doctor.  If you get a green light, the soothing touch from a massage therapist may renew you.



    Is your therapist trained?  Society for Oncology Massage.  2013.  Retrieved from


    Koopmans, A. and Carroll, L.  Power of touch:  How specialized massage helps cancer patients.  Feb. 18, 2014.  Retrieved from


    Massage.  American Cancer Society.  Retrieved from


    Serife, K. and Kahye, E.  Effects of back massage on chemotherapy-related fatigue and anxiety: Supportive care and therapeutic touch in cancer nursing.  Applied Nursing Research. Volume 26, Issue 4  November 2013.  Retrieved from

Published On: May 09, 2014