Massage and cancer

Massage is an ancient therapy. It works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body.

Summary:

  • Massage therapy has been used for centuries.
  • There are several types of massage - ranging from soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk.
  • There is no scientific evidence that massage can treat cancer. 

What is massage therapy?

Massage is a technique that applies pressure to parts of the body. A therapist uses techniques such as stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing. It aims to relax you mentally and physically. Massage may concentrate on the muscles, the soft tissues, or on the acupuncture points.

Massage techniques can range from being soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk. They may sometimes even be a bit uncomfortable. Therapists may treat your whole body or concentrate on a specific part, such as your head, neck or shoulders.

There are several types of massage:

  • Swedish massage – most common type of full body massage
  • aromatherapy massage - massage with essential oils
  • deep tissue massage – used for long standing, deep muscular problems
  • sports massage – used before or after sport or to help heal sports injuries
  • Shiatsu - uses acupressure and stretching
  • neuromuscular massage – helps to balance the nervous system and the muscles

Why people with cancer use it

One of the main reasons people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good. It is a way they feel they can help themselves.

Massage therapy can help lift your mood, improve your sleep and enhance your well being. There is some evidence to help support these benefits.

Massage for people with cancer might help you relax and cope with:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • headaches
  • pain

How you have it

On your first visit, the therapist asks you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. 

When you have shiatsu massage you lie on soft mats on the floor with your clothes on. 

With most other massage therapies, you lie on a massage table for your treatment. You might need to take off your clothes, except for your underwear. Your therapist will cover you in a gown or large towel. They only expose the parts of your body that they are working on. 

Most massage sessions last an hour, but this can depend on your therapist. Your therapist might play some relaxing music during the session.

The amount of pressure your therapist applies when massaging you can vary. It will depend on the type of massage. Most people say that having a massage is very relaxing and soothing. But you should let your therapist know if you feel uncomfortable and want them to stop at any time.

You might be thirsty afterwards. So drink plenty of water. 

Remember that your therapist should never massage your genital area or touch you in a sexual way. You can stop the session and leave if you are uncomfortable at any time during your massage.

Side effects

Most people don’t have any side effects from having a massage. But you might feel a bit light headed, sleepy, tired or thirsty afterwards. Some people can feel a bit emotional or tearful for a while.

Research into massage and cancer

There is no scientific evidence that massage can treat cancer. But it is commonly used to help people feel more relaxed. It might help people cope with their cancer and symptoms. 

Trials have been carried out to find out whether massage can help people with cancer. Most of the studies are small or have limitations to the trial design.  

Several small studies have looked at massage. They wanted to see if massage can help reduce pain, feeling sick (nausea), anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue). The results have been inconclusive due to the poor quality of the studies.

A Cochrane review in 2016 looked at the effects of massage with or without aromatherapy. They wanted to see if this type of massage could help reduce pain in cancer patients. The aromatherapy massage did leave people feeling relaxed with positive benefits. There was not enough evidence to say that either type of massage reduced pain. The authors say we need more studies, with larger numbers of people and with a better trial design.

A systematic review Open a glossary item in 2016 found that massage helped reduce stress and anxiety. They looked at massage and pain control in people with cancer too. But the results were less clear. The authors say we need more studies looking at massage and pain.

One study looked at the effect massage could have on pain and anxiety after abdominal colorectal surgery. The study results indicated that massage after colorectal surgery improved patients perception of pain and anxiety but their overall satisfaction did not change. More studies are needed. 

A review in 2014 looked at massage in people with breast cancer. They wanted to see if massage could help with cancer related symptoms. There was some evidence that massage might be helpful in reducing anxiety, tiredness and pain. But the authors say more trials are needed with longer follow up. 

In 2012, a US study looked at teaching carers to give simple massage to people with cancer. The carers were given a DVD and an instruction manual. They were advised to practice at least 3 times a week. Another group of carers were advised to read to the person with cancer at least 3 times a week.

The study found that all the participants had significantly reduced cancer symptoms. But there was more reduction in the people who had massage.

The carers trained to give massage showed more confidence, comfort and skill in using touch and massage at the end of the study.

Who shouldn’t use massage therapy

People with cancer should avoid very deep massage. Gentler types may be safer.

Some people worry that having a massage when you have cancer may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body. But no research has proved this to be true.

Sometimes massage techniques might need to be adapted if you:

  • are having cancer treatment
  • are very weak
  • have bone fractures
  • have heart problems
  • suffer from arthritis
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding

Talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse before using massage therapy. 

Avoid massaging any area of your body where you are having radiotherapy to. And don’t have massage to areas where your skin is broken, bleeding or bruised.

Avoid general massage therapy to your arms or legs if they are swollen because of lymphoedema. Lymphoedema is a build up of fluid due to the lymphatic system not draining properly. 

There is a special type of massage used for lymphoedema. Its called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). This is a very specialised treatment and people who need MLD are referred to a lymphoedema specialist by their doctor or specialist nurse.

How much it costs

Private massage treatments usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 30 to 90 minute session.

Many cancer centres and hospitals in the UK now offer different types of massage therapy free of charge. Therapists working in these centres are likely to have completed additional training and have ongoing supervision for their work.

Ask if massage therapy is available in the ward or centre where you're having your treatment. If it isn’t, they might be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that does so for free or at a reduced cost.

  • 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)
  •  A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based practices
    N. Calcagni and others
    PLoS One, 2019. Volume 14, Issue 10

  • Massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer
    E.S Shin and others 
    Cochrane Database Systematic Review. 2016

  • Massage interventions and treatment-related side effects of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis
    Y. Q Pan and others
    International  Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2014, Volume 19, Issue 5, Pages 829-841

  • Integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment: ASCO endorsement of the SIO clinical practice guideline
    GH Lyman and others
    Journal of Clinical Oncology, September 2018, Volume 1, Issue 36; 2647-2655

  • Effect of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, relaxation, and tension after colorectal surgery: A randomized study
    N.E Dryer and others
    Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. August 2015. Vol 21, Issue 3; 154-159

  • Touch, caring and cancer: randomized controlled trial of a multimedia caregiver education program
    W Collinge and others
    Supportive Care in Cancer, 2013. Volume 21, 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.

Last reviewed: 
06 Sep 2022
Next review due: 
06 Sep 2025