Managing Treatments

Cancer and Massage Therapy: How It Can Ease Pain During Treatment

Getting a massage by a trained oncology massage therapist is a safe complement to cancer treatment.

As you face side effects during cancer treatment (and even after), you may be looking for options to ease pain, fatigue and other feelings. Massage therapy can offer relief and general relaxation period when provided by a licensed therapist trained to assist people with cancer. Find out how treatment for cancer and massage therapy can come together to help you feel better.

Benefits of Massage Therapy

Massage is a safe, well-tolerated complementary therapy for patients and caregivers as you go through cancer treatment. It’s also beneficial as part of a survivorship plan to combat late effects of treatment and anxiety. Massage therapy added to your overall cancer treatment plan can help reduce anxiety, fatigue, nausea and pain, according to The Society for Oncology Massage.

Peripheral neuropathy, a debilitating condition that causes pain, tingling and numbness in your hands and feet, is another common side effect of cancer, and massage therapy can improve quality of life for people dealing with it.

Kim Fitzgerald, a licensed oncology massage therapist at UVA Cancer Center Augusta, has seen the positive effects in patients. She offers massages at the Augusta clinic during infusions and upon request. One patient was struggling to hold a cup without dropping because of peripheral neuropathy. After a few sessions, combined with at-home methods she taught him, he came back sharing that he is able to hold a cup. Overcoming these limitations makes a big difference in people’s self-image and overall sense of well-being.

“I see massage therapy making a big difference in people’s everyday lives,” she says. “We teach patients and caregivers simple massage techniques they can incorporate at home while watching TV.” At-home techniques help to get blood flowing to stimulate nerve endings affected by cancer treatment. Fitzgerald says these techniques are simple and can be done while watching TV.

What’s It Like?

You may worry about a massage hurting, especially if you have bone pain or are sensitive to touch. Oncology massage adapts techniques to safely care for people dealing with pain, low blood cell counts, lymphedema, medical devices and other limitations unique to people with cancer. Fitzgerald says she uses massage techniques and reflexology, which focuses mostly on your hands and feet.

“A massage during cancer is focused on gentle, quality touch,” Fitzgerald says. “We stay at a pressure level of two, with a focus on being relaxing. Most people feel sleepy, not [as] worked over as you would in a traditional massage.”

A massage often lasts about 15 or 20 minutes and focuses on hands, feet, shoulders or back, depending on your needs. It’s performed in a chair fully clothed. The intimacy of a massage is uncomfortable or a new experience for people. Tell the therapist your comfort level with being touched, and the massage can be adjusted to suit you. Keep in mind this is a chance for you to relax and find a little peace in the midst of this chaotic time in your life.

Massage Isn’t Only for Patients

Caregivers also struggle with the emotional and physical effects of cancer, and massage therapy benefits them as well. While a patient receives treatment, the caregiver can also get a short massage. Massage therapists can teach caregivers techniques to do at home, giving you more tools to help your loved one deal with pain and other side effects.

Find a Massage Therapist

At UVA Cancer Center Augusta, massage therapy is a free service offered to patients and caregivers by therapists trained in oncology massage. If you’re at a center that doesn’t offer massage as a complementary therapy, visit the Society for Oncology Massage to find a trained provider near you.

You can also call or consult with local massage therapists and inquire if they’re trained and experienced in providing massage to people with cancer. You want to look for a gentle touch massage.

UVA Cancer Center Augusta offers a variety of support services, including massage therapy, for patients and caregivers. Learn more here.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney