What is massage?
Massage is a hands-on method of manipulating the soft tissues of the body using the hands, fingertips, and fists. Massage can include a variety of types of pressure and touch. A massage can be light, concentrating on the skin, or deep, focusing on the underlying layers of muscle tissue.
Studies have demonstrated that massage can offer some health benefits for people with cancer. Massage has been found to be helpful for:
- immune function
What to expect in a typical massage session
Here is what you can usually expect at a massage session:
- When you arrive for your massage appointment, the massage therapist will ask if you have any injuries or health conditions. Make sure to tell your therapist about your breast cancer treatment. This helps him or her to determine the type of massage that's right for you, as well as any areas to avoid.
- Depending on the setting, you may have the option to either lie on a table or sit in a chair for your massage.
- If you choose a table massage, you'll be taken to a private room and asked to remove some or all of your clothing and to cover yourself with a blanket.
- If you choose a chair massage, you will probably not be taken to a private room, and you won't need to remove your clothing.
- Most massage techniques involve lying on a cushioned table. Your massage therapist may use pillows to support different areas of your body.
- Your massage therapist may use oils or lotions on your skin. If you are allergic to any common ingredients of body oils or lotions, let the therapist know.
- Don't hesitate to let your massage therapist know if the level of pressure is too hard. If you feel any discomfort, ask him or her to use lighter strokes.
- A typical massage lasts about an hour, although sessions can range from 30 to 90 minutes.
- After a massage, the massage therapist will step out of the room and allow you to relax alone for a few minutes and then get dressed.
Massage practitioner requirements
If you're being treated for breast cancer, it's important to find a licensed massage therapist who has experience with breast cancer patients. Since many cancer centers are connected with programs offering massage therapy, ask your doctor for recommendations. If there are no programs in your area, you can interview potential massage therapists or to ask your doctor to do so.
When talking with a potential massage therapist, ask questions about his or her background:
- Training. Many states require that massage therapists have a minimum of at least 500 hours of training in order to be certified. Although requirements vary by state, seek a therapist who has trained at least 500 hours.
- Experience. Ask whether the therapist has ever worked with breast cancer patients.
Meeting state requirements. The American Massage Therapy Association website offers a state-by-state guide to requirements for therapist education and experience.
- Licensing. If the therapist is licensed, the initials LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) or LMP (Licensed Massage Practitioner) will appear after his or her name.
- Certification. In states that do not offer licenses, the minimum qualification you should look for is CMT (Certified Massage Therapist).
To find a qualified massage therapist in your area, visit these organizations:
- The American Massage Therapy Association
- The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork
Research on massage in people with breast cancer and other types of cancer
Studies have shown that massage seems to offer both physical and emotional benefits for women with breast cancer.
A 2003 study at the University of Minnesota compared the effects of massage healing touch (a practice in which the therapist's hands are above or very lightly touching the body) with the caring presence of a doctor or nurse (without any touch therapies) in 230 people who had cancer. In this study, researchers found that, while both healing touch and massage lowered anxiety and pain, massage also reduced the need for pain medicine.
In a 5-week study at the University of Miami in 2003, massage therapy and progressive muscle relaxation therapy were compared in 58 women with Stage I and II breast cancer. Both groups reported feeling less anxious, and the massage group also reported feeling less depressed. The massage group also showed increased levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, which helps produce a feeling of well-being. In addition, for the massage group, there was an increase in protective white blood cells that help boost the immune system (called natural killer cells) from the first to the last day of the study.
There is no evidence that massage can cause an existing cancer to spread.
Important things to consider before trying massage therapy
If you have breast cancer and are interested in finding a massage therapist, ask your surgeon or oncologist for recommendations. It's important to let your massage therapist know about your diagnosis, treatment, and any symptoms you may have. Massage can be very helpful. But it has the potential to cause harm. Keep these things in mind:
- If you've just had breast surgery, you should lie on your back for a massage until your doctor decides it is safe for you to lie on your stomach.
- Deep massage, or any type of massage that involves strong pressure, should NOT be used if you are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. People undergoing chemotherapy may have a decrease in red and white blood cells, so with deep massage, there is a risk of bruising. Since deep massage can be taxing to a system already vulnerable from chemotherapy and radiation, it is not recommended for people currently in treatment. Light massage can be used instead.
- If you're currently undergoing radiation, your massage therapist should avoid touching any sensitive skin in the treatment area. Massage and massage oils can make already-irritated skin feel much worse. Your therapist should also avoid touching any temporary markings in the corners of the radiation treatment field. If you don't have skin irritation in the treatment area, any massage to this area should be done very lightly through a soft towel or cloth.
- If you have had lymph nodes removed, the massage therapist should only use very light touch on your affected arm and the area around the underarm.
- If you have arm lymphedema, the massage therapist should avoid the affected arm and underarm areas completely. Traditional massage therapy can worsen lymphedema. A massage therapist who has experience with breast cancer patients may already know this, but it's important to make sure he or she understands.
- If you have arm lymphedema, your arm and underarm area should be treated by a different kind of massage especially for lymphedema, called manual lymphatic drainage. Look for a physical, occupational, or massage therapist trained and certified in manual lymph drainage to treat your lymphedema. Get more information about finding a lymphedema therapist.
Read expert opinions about massage in our Ask-the-Expert Online Conference on Acupuncture and Touch Therapies.