What Every Person With Cancer Should Know About Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can play a supportive role in your cancer care. Here are some things you should know before you get a massage.

Is massage safe for me?

Yes, a massage therapist with training in oncology massage can provide a safe and effective massage no matter where you are in your cancer treatment or recovery.

Does massage have anything to offer me?

Yes, possible benefits of oncology massage include decreased levels of pain, anxiety, nausea, and fatigue. Massage may also help improve sleep and overall sense of well being.

What is oncology massage?

In short, it’s a massage customized to you. Oncology massage is a massage adapted to the specific ways cancer or cancer treatments have affected you and your body provided by a massage therapist with specific training in massage and cancer. Adjustments may include session length, pressure of massage strokes, and alternate positioning (i.e. maybe you are uncomfortable lying on your stomach or back).

What is an “oncology massage therapist” and why should I see one?

Why all this talk of an oncology massage therapist?

Another oncology massage therapist sums it up best here:

Maybe you’re in pain.  Maybe your hair has fallen out or you have neuropathy or shortness of breath or you’re inescapably nauseated.  You decide you need support in the form of massage therapy.

You find yourself standing in front of two doors.  One door says, “Massage, All Are Welcome…We’ll Figure it Out.”  On the other door, the sign reads, “Oncology Massage: Come As You Are. I am Skilled, Present and At Your Service. Which door would you choose?”.

Lauren Cates

There is no one-size-fits-all massage. In Illinois, as in many other states, the state regulates massage licensing. They have a baseline standard for entry-level massage therapists to protect the public. States require a certain amount of education covering various topics, as well as passing a licensing exam and a background check. In addition to many other things, they want massage therapists to know when it is safe for someone to receive a massage and when it is not. In school, we were taught to refer someone to their doctor or a more qualified massage therapist if we felt we lacked the knowledge to provide safe massage.

Cancer and cancer treatments have many effects on the body for which massage adjustments must be made.  There is no one-size-fits-all massage. Initial massage education in the United States does not typically prepare massage therapists for this. In massage school, over the course of a semester we discussed various illnesses and injuries and whether or not massage was safe or needed to be adapted. We even spent a whole week on massage and cancer. For many of the scenarios, I felt prepared to provide safe massage right out of school. But with cancer I felt I needed more information. I knew that there were lots of things to look out for, like lymphedema risk and bone metastasis, but didn’t really know how to adapt for them, and I certainly didn’t want to make someone feel worse after their massage.  I read everything I could find on the subject, including a textbook written by a leader in the field of oncology massage. Still, I did not feel “qualified” until completing a 4 day intensive hands-on training.

While there are no government-regulated standards of what a qualified oncology massage therapist is, the Society for Oncology Massage (S4OM) has set forth minimum competency standards for massage therapists to work safely and effectively with people with cancer and cancer histories*:  at least 500 hours of massage training, holds the appropriate credential to practice in their jurisdiction (in Illinois, this would be a massage therapy license), and has completed a foundational course in oncology massage.

* If you are in cancer recovery, a massage therapist with training in oncology massage will still be a great choice for you. Cancer and its treatments have many effects, some short-term, some lifelong.

How do I find an oncology massage therapist?

If you are in or near Champaign, I am a Preferred Provider for the Society for Oncology Massage. You can contact me here or schedule a massage here. Otherwise, check S4OM’s locator tool to connect with one of my wonderful colleagues.

-Karyn Claflin, LMT

UPDATED 1/22/2015: Added quote from Lauren Cates.