Light, relaxing massage can safely be given to people at all stages of cancer. Tumour or treatment sites should not be massaged to avoid discomfort or pressure on the affected area and underlying organs. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor.
Cancer may spread (metastasise) into the lymphatic system via the lymph nodes, or it may start in the lymphatic system itself. However, the circulation of lymph – from massage or other movement – does not cause cancer to spread. Researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body.
Several clinical studies show that massage can reduce symptoms such as stress, nausea, pain, fatigue and depression.
A systematic review of studies on aromatherapy and massage for relieving symptoms in people with cancer looked at 10 studies including eight randomized controlled trials. It found that massage consistently reduced anxiety and depression. Massage also helped lower nausea and pain, but not as consistently.
A large American study published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1,300 people with cancer over three years. People in a hospital had a 20-minute massage, and people treated as outpatients had a 60-minute session. The study found that overall, massage therapy reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60-minute session.
Another American study of 39 people looked at the safety and effectiveness of massage in reducing stress hormone levels in patients with blood cancer. It randomized people to receive aromatherapy, massage or rest. The study concluded that massage significantly reduced the stress hormone.