Reflexology and cancer

Reflexology is a complementary therapy sometimes used by people with cancer. It involves applying gentle pressure to the feet or occasionally the hands. 

Summary

  • Reflexology works on energy pathways similar to acupuncture.
  • It aims to relax you, ease stress and tension and help with general well being.
  • Reflexologists believe that certain points on the feet correspond to organs in the body.

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is a technique that applies gentle pressure to your feet or hands. It aims to bring about a state of relaxation and help the body's own healing process. 

Reflexology works in a similar way to acupressure and acupuncture. Reflexologists believe there are certain points on the feet and hands. These points correspond to the organs and glands in the body. So by pressing and massaging these points it can stimulate energy pathways in the body.

If any energy pathways are blocked reflexology aims to unblock them. Allowing the energy to flow freely again which aims to restore balance to the body. 

Why people with cancer use reflexology

Reflexology is one of the most popular types of complementary therapy in the UK among people with cancer. Some cancer centres offer reflexology treatments free to their patients. Some people with cancer say they feel more relaxed and able to cope after a reflexology session.

There is some evidence that reflexology can help you:

  • relax and cope with stress and anxiety
  • relieve pain
  • lift your mood and give a feeling of well being

Reflexology is not a treatment or cure for cancer.

How you have it

On your first visit, your reflexologist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. 

A reflexology session usually lasts between 30 to 60 minutes.

You usually lie down or sit in a reclining chair to have the treatment. 

Most people say having reflexology feels relaxing and soothing. But pressure on some areas may be uncomfortable or slightly painful. Your therapist might tell you that this discomfort relates to blockages in energy flow in a particular part of your body.

Your reflexologist may suggest a course of treatments instead of just one session. This can be expensive if you are paying for your own treatment. So always check how much a therapist charges and how many sessions they recommend before booking.

Side effects

Tell your reflexologist about any medical conditions you have, including cancer. And about any treatments you are taking.

Check that your reflexologist is trained or experienced in treating people with cancer. There might be specific points on the feet that they need to avoid, or where they should only apply very gentle pressure. Ask your cancer specialist or healthcare team if you are not sure.   

Also check with your doctor or nurse before having reflexology if you have any of these conditions:

  • circulatory problems of the feet
  • inflammation or blood clots in the leg veins
  • gout
  • foot ulcers
  • fungal conditions of the feet such as athlete's foot
  • a low platelet count, which means you may bruise or bleed more easily

Generally, reflexology appears to be safe and doesn’t cause many side effects. Because most people feel relaxed after a treatment you might feel a bit light headed. Some people say their feet feel tender afterwards, others can have an emotional response or need to pass urine more often.

Tell your reflexologist about any after effects that you have.

Research into reflexology for people with cancer

There is no scientific evidence to prove that reflexology can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer.

It is still a popular form of complementary therapy for people with cancer. Some studies have looked at using it to help with symptoms such as pain, sickness and anxiety. 

Most trials have been small with mixed results. Some trials have not been well designed. This means they are not conclusive and we need further research.

Reflexology and pain 

A systematic review Open a glossary item in 2015 looked at the effect of reflexology on pain in people with cancer. Some of the studies suggested reflexology might help with pain. But the trials were small and had limitations. So the author concluded that we need more research.

Reflexology and quality of life in early breast cancer

A randomised controlled trial Open a glossary item in 2009 looked at whether reflexology or scalp massage could help improve quality of life in women with early breast cancer compared to social and physical support on its own. They found that women who had scalp massage and reflexology had a better quality of life. It was a small study, so we need more research.

How much it costs

Reflexology is free at some UK cancer centres and hospitals. You can ask your nurse or doctor if this is an option on the ward or centre where you have your treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that offer complementary therapy treatments at no cost or a reduced cost.

If you have reflexology privately, it will usually cost between £35 and £70 for a 60 minute treatment. Costs can vary depending on where you live. It is important to have your treatments with a qualified therapist.

A word of caution

Make sure that you see a reflexologist who is properly trained and a qualified practitioner. Most reputable reflexologists are registered with the Association of Reflexologists or the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). 

Reflexology is not a treatment or cure for cancer. 

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

The Association of Reflexologists (AoR) is a UK membership organisation of well trained and insured reflexologists. The AoR provide advice and guidance to reflexologists, and work with others to promote high standards. Their website has a useful search to find your nearest reflexologist.

Victoria House
Victoria Street
Taunton
Somerset
TA1 3FA

Phone: 01823 351010

Last reviewed: 
17 Jun 2022
Next review due: 
17 Jun 2025
  • Meta-Analysis of Massage Therapy on Cancer Pain
    SH Lee and others
    Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2015. Volume 14, Issue 4, Pages 297-304

  • CAM-Cancer website
    Reflexology
    Accessed June 2022

  • The effectiveness of aromatherapy, massage and reflexology in people with palliative care needs: A systematic review
    B Candy and others
    Palliative Medicine, 2020. Volume 34, Issue 2, Pages 179–194. 

  • Reflexology and Cancer
    A. Unlu and others, 2018
    Journal of Oncological Sciences. Volume 4, 96-101

  • A randomised controlled trial of the psychological effects of reflexology in early breast cancer
    D.M Sharp and others, 2009
    European Journal of Cancer, Vol 46, 312-322

  • The efficacy of reflexology: systematic review.
    MY Wang and others, 2008
    Journal of Advanced Nursing. Volume 62, Issue 5

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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