When a friend studying massage therapy told me she couldn’t give me a massage after I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt like a leper. I was stunned and angry, frustrated that a massage school would teach its students, including my friend, to fear that massage spread cancer in the body.
That was in 1994. Later on that year, I found a massage therapist who would work with me and I was so relieved. She too was surviving cancer, ovarian, and had received massage during her cancer treatments, so she was deeply empathetic to what I was going through. I desperately needed touch therapy; at 32, I had no husband, no children to give me daily doses of touch. The diagnosis had left me feeling betrayed by my own body and abandoned by god. Massage therapy helped me to reconnect with the parts of my body that were healthy and functioning. Bodywork also aided me in relaxing deeply into the present moment, which is, of course, where all healing occurs. During my massage treatments, I was able to let go of the fears that hounded me. Regrets about past choices, fears about my treatments, and a constant, rattling anxiety that I would die before I had truly lived, all melted away when I was under the compassionate hands of my therapist.
Since that time, I have become a Licensed Massage Therapist, Reiki Master and counselor. The teachers at the school I attended, Lane Community College in Eugene, educated us about working with people who have cancer, just as they do about people with other illnesses. We were well informed about the benefits and the cautions, and were advised to get clearance from the client’s doctor. Never, however, did they tell us “Do not touch people with cancer!”
I still hear from cancer patients who’ve been told that massage therapists won’t work with them. Of course, it is up to each therapist to find their comfort level in treating clients with various ailments, be it diabetes or fibromyalgia—but if a therapist isn’t working with cancer patients due to misconceptions, I would like to clear them up for both therapist, and ultimately, client.
Until recently, there has been very little research done in the field of bodywork therapies and their effects on cancer patients. No one seems to know where the idea began that massage can spread cancer but there are no studies that prove that. There are, on the other hand, dozens of research projects that show increased health and well being for cancer patients who receive touch therapy. Medicine Hands, Massage Therapy for People with Cancer, by Gayle MacDonald, describes many studies in detail. However, it was published in 1999 and there are many more studies that have been completed since then. This book is a fabulous resource for any bodywork therapist, or for any cancer patient who wants to better understand touch therapies and how they might benefit from them. Additionally, Gayle teaches workshops for massage therapists who want to work with people who have cancer.
What is known about cancer is that it is a complicated disease and that metastasis (when cancer travels to another site in the body and develops a tumor) involves a highly specialized series of metabolic, rather than mechanical, steps. In other words, for a cancer cell to break away from its original tumor, move through the body and reestablish itself, many chemical, hormonal and genetic factors must be present. The increase in circulation from massage is no different than that which occurs during aerobic exercise, brisk walks, hot showers, or sex, for that matter. An exception to this is when the therapist is working with a patient who has active leukemia or lymphoma. The therapist will want to use only methods that do not stimulate the circulation, such as Reiki, Polarity Therapy, Craniosacral Therapies or Jin Shin Jyustu.
The cautions that therapists need to be aware of during massage and other touch therapies are mostly just common sense. For instance, it just isn’t wise to massage a tumor. Likewise, it’s not a good idea to work on the surgery site until it has healed completely, nor to rub any areas that are undergoing radiation, and of course, not to disturb a catheter that has been inserted for chemotherapy. As well, chemotherapy is so powerful that the patient will “outgas” the medicine through their skin for about 72 hours, so the therapist might want to use gloves for any treatment during that period.
It is recommended that a cancer patient stick to gentler forms of bodywork while being treated with conventional treatments. There are no research projects on the subject but it is generally believed that deep tissue massage, including Rolfing and Structural Integration, is so aggressive it can create tiny tears in the fascia and muscle tissue and that the ensuing stress could dampen the immune system. However, because I didn’t know any better and had already thrown out the idea that massage was bad for me, I did receive deep tissue massage from time to time because my back went into spasm. When I was in serious pain, deep tissue work gave the only relief I could find.
Of great interest are the studies that show that massage can improve the functioning of the immune system. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine completed a research project in 2003 with women who had breast cancer, which showed that massage therapy increases the number of natural killer cells known to destroy cancer cells. After five weeks, the participants who had received massage had an increase of natural killer cells by 11 percent. These participants also reported being “less depressed, less anxious and less angry, as well as having more vigor” than the control group.
Nowadays, there are dozens of hospitals and cancer clinics throughout the US and other countries that use massage and other touch therapies. Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City, Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California and Geffen Cancer Center Research Institute in Vero Beach, Florida are just a few. The fear surrounding massage does not come from oncology specialists.
The benefits of massage therapy for people with cancer are becoming more widely known, in part, because there are so many rewards and because they are so obvious. On the physical side, there is relief from pain, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, and muscle tension. On the emotional side, the healing of touch helps many people to allay their feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety. Clients feel it improves their quality of life and stimulates the will to live. Besides, it just feels so darn good to get massaged when the effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation hurt so damn bad and make you feel like shit!
I look back on the two years I was actively dealing with cancer and recuperating from treatment as a mixture of extreme highs and extreme lows. The massage treatments I received from my therapist were like islands of blissful relief in an ocean of sometimes hellish side effects and overwhelming terror.
I would like to invite any therapists who are afraid to work on cancer patients to educate themselves further, and if you are still squeamish, please be ready to refer your client to a knowledgeable therapist who would welcome the occasion. Don’t just leave the person dealing with cancer feeling even more isolated and outcast. And for the reader who is a cancer patient, if you are at first turned down by a therapist, keep looking. There are more and more of us out there who would love the opportunity to assist you in your healing process. After all, you know what you need more than anyone, and now is the best time to ask for it.
Alicia Swaringen is a Licensed Massage Therapist and Reiki Master, with a two-year certificate in Process Oriented Psychology, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. She created BodyWisdom Therapy, a combination of bodywork and counseling to help people unravel the messages of their bodies and to integrate the messages into their daily lives. She can be reached at 541-689-0430 or [email protected].