For a long time, there was a fear that massage could promote cancer metastasis. The thinking went that massage increases circulation and that increased circulation would spread cancer faster. Until rather recently, people with cancer were not experiencing the benefits of massage. It was only in the last 20 years or so that this fear was questioned. There has not been research into this question, but with the knowledge we do have we can reason it through.
First, does massage increase circulation? We’re not really sure, there is little research. So, for this discussion let’s assume massage does increase circulation. Does increased circulation increase cancer spread? Exercise and movement also increase circulation. Cancer patients are often encouraged to exercise. If there is no concern that exercise will spread cancer, massage will not either.
Second, cancer metastasis is a complex biological process. Let’s take a look at a few of the steps (1, 2) of cancer metastasis to see how they could be affected by massage.
- Cancer cells shed from the tumor. It is possible that sufficient pressure applied directly to a tumor could increase cell shedding. Surgeons are concerned about disturbing tumors so they take great care when removing them. Because of this and also because it can be painful, Massage Therapists avoid pressure on accessible active and suspected tumor sites. Most tumors are too deep to be accessible by direct pressure.
“Massage Therapy is not contraindicated in cancer patients. Massaging a tumor is, but there is a great deal more to a person than the tumor.” —Bernie Siegel, MD
- Cancer cells are then carried through the body by blood and lymph. Blood and lymph move fairly quickly through the body already. We aren’t really sure that massage increases this, but if it does it would only carry the cells a bit more quickly. This isn’t spreading the cancer, it has not spread until the cells actually survive and implant in another area of the body. The vast majority of cells that shed from tumors do not survive this step to implant in another area.
“Tumor cells that enter the blood stream circulate until one of three things happens: 1) they are killed, 2) they are trapped in the capillary bed of another organ, or 3) they invade the blood vessel wall into the tissue of a distant organ. Only the latter group can ever form metastatic colonies. Cells that remain in the blood stream or are trapped inside the tiny vessels of a capillary bed die fairly quickly, often within hours (2).”
- Cells implant in another area of the body. This is a biological process where the cancer cells and the organ or tissue interact. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see how this would possibly be affected by massage.
“One characteristic that might make an organ congenial to tumor growth is the presence of specific growth factors found at those sites. Other evidence points toward an idea of adhesive-specificity, where particular cancers bind to certain types of tissue. In part, this happens because they home in to certain sites that contain the molecular address system that matches to the surface of certain tissues or organ (2).”
I hope this discussion has calmed any fears you may have had that massage could spread cancer. Skilled Massage Therapy has much to offer people affected by cancer. As always, if you have any questions feel free to send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Curties, Debra. Could Massage Therapy Promote Cancer Metastasis?
(2) MacDonald, Gayle. The Spread of Cancer.