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Is Massage Dangerous for Cancer Patients?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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There is some debate over whether or not massage is dangerous for cancer patients. The short answer to this question is that it depends, and patients should talk to their oncologists. Cancer is extremely complex, and because there are so many types of cancer, there are some cases in which massage is dangerous and others in which it can actually be quite beneficial. Especially during treatment, it is important for the patient to consult a medical professional about which massage or bodywork modalities would be safe for him or her.

In all cases, cancer massage requires special training, and patients should go to a massage therapist or nurse who has been specifically trained to give massage to cancer patients. It is important to use a very light, delicate touch, and to avoid putting stress on radiation sites, sites where surgery has been performed, or tumor locations. A massage therapist who has learned to work with cancer patients will also be knowledgeable about which massage creams and oils are safe, and he or she will have the experience to make the massage comfortable and enjoyable. Massage can be dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced therapist, so patients must make sure to find one who is certified and highly recommended.

The primary reason some people worry that massage is dangerous for cancer patients is that there is a fear that massage may cause cancers to metastasize, because it stimulates the flow of lymphatic fluid in the body. Studies have suggested that this may be the case with some deep tissue massage modalities, but that gentle massage is probably not going to lead to a spread of the cancer. Of more concern is lymphedema, a condition caused by pooling of lymph in the limbs; a massage therapist who is not experienced in working with cancer patients could cause this condition by accident.

Many people believe that touch therapy is very beneficial, especially for cancer patients who sometimes feel very isolated and frightened. A very gentle massage can help reduce stress for cancer patients, and reductions in stress levels can benefit the immune system as well as one's outlook on life. In cases where full body massage may not be appropriate, therapists can also offer head and neck massage or reflexology to their clients.

Some hospitals even offer massage and other therapy services to their oncology patients, indicating their position in the debate about whether massage is dangerous for cancer patients or not. Whether a patient chooses to use a therapist provided by the hospital or one recommended by a member of his or her medical team, he or she should always discuss the illness with the therapist before beginning a session, and be aware that some massage therapists may ask to see a note from a medical professional to confirm that he or she believes that massage is safe. It is also extremely important for the patient to communicate as soon as he or she feels any pain or discomfort during a session; during an oncology massage, clients should feel a sense of comfort and well being, with no tension, pain, or stress.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002424 — On Nov 18, 2019

According to the cancer council, massage of any form does not contribute to the spread of cancer of any form. Could you confirm this acknowledgement?

By anon146063 — On Jan 25, 2011

I have been reading different articles about the effects of massage therapy on cancer patients. It has come to light that there have been and continue to be concerns for the patients' well-being and ability to receive massage therapy. And, questions raised about the therapists' qualifications in providing massage to cancer patients.

However, the general consensus seems to indicate that patients have and do benefit. We definitely need to deal with the 'fear factor' created around massage therapy treatments promoting or potentially metastasizing cancer in the body. There are no studies that unequivocally state that massage therapy is responsible for spreading cancer in a cancer patient's body.

This type of positioning is more commonly propagated for gain by the Allopathic community in their continuing quest to discount non-medical approaches to obtaining health. Those of us who provide integrative therapies need to discern and dissipate these unsubstantiated myths and better educate the unsuspecting public.

By anon122114 — On Oct 26, 2010

For the last year of my brother's life I would visit him on Sundays. He would always ask for a hand massage and loved when he received it. As his illness progressed, family stepped back a bit, afraid that he was too tender to touch. The massage seemed to help him in many ways and also decreased his anxiety.

Knowing that his parasympathetic nervous system was being calmed, this helped me to know it was making a difference for him. He passed Christmas Day and I still remember his smile when he received his massage. This has led me to go on to more schooling for Oncology Massage.

By Charlie89 — On Sep 17, 2010

It is really important to choose a good, knowledgeable massage therapist for cancer massage therapy. Don't even waste your time with the ones who claim that massage is the "natural alternative cancer treatment" -- more often than not, they're just playing on people's hope and desperation.

There is no "natural alternative cure" that works for everybody -- but a good massage can make cancer more bearable, especially cancer treated with chemotherapy. Massage should be seen as a supporting therapy, not a treatment.

By FirstViolin — On Sep 17, 2010

My aunt suffered from ovarian cancer for quite some time, and she was always in pain from the treatment they were giving her.

Luckily, she had a good support group at her cancer center, and they mentioned an oncology massage therapist.

She tried the therapist out, and the change in her state of mind was obvious even after the first session. Having that positive, personal touch really does make such a difference, whether it's in everyday life or in the treatment of cancer.

Unfortunately she passed a few years later, but I truly believe that her time was much happier because of her oncology massages.

By pleats — On Sep 17, 2010

I have heard of the whole debate about massage for cancer patients, but I would think that the benefits of a gentle massage would be much greater than any risks.

I think that touch is so important for all people since it humanizes us and benefits our psyche. Obviously you can't use it as an alternative treatment for cancer, but as a supporting treatment it can be great, even if it's only used to mitigate the pain of chemotherapy.

This can be especially important for cancer patients, who are so often isolated by their illness mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Having even that little bit of touch can make such a difference in people's lives, so I think that unless it is directly and obviously harmful, then cancer patients should by all means get massages.

Having touch is not only humanizing for them in such a dehumanizing situation; it also has numerous physical and psychological benefits.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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