When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, the term “Oncology Massage” didn’t exist. What did exist was the common misperception that massage itself wasn’t safe for cancer patients.
We’ve come a long way since then.
Today, that old myth has been completely dispelled, and more and more hospitals and mainstream clinics are embracing the benefits of massage therapy and offering it as part of their cancer rehabilitation programs.
Even though it is considered safe, there are however some important things that practitioners and patients should consider when it comes to massage for people living with cancer. As a seasoned massage therapist and instructor in oncology massage for breast cancer, I wanted to address some common questions about giving and receiving bodywork during treatment and recovery.
1. How safe is safe? Since massage increases circulation, won’t it increase the risk of spreading cancer to other body parts?
Massage stimulates the blood flow, but so does walking, exercising, taking a hot shower or bath – all of which are highly recommended during cancer treatment. Stimulation alone does not increase the risk of cancer spreading; there are many other factors that come into play, including the type of cells, genetic predispositions, immune system function, blood vessel quality and more.
In fact, massage can actually aid in strengthening the immune system and promoting healing by increasing relaxation and reducing stress
2. How soon after diagnosis a person can receive a massage?
Right away! During the initial days after diagnosis, when a patient is overwhelmed and the nervous system is raw, gentle massage, Shiatsu, and energy work like reiki, healing touch or Jin Shin Jitsu can be soothing, calming, and balancing, and are safe to receive before treatment starts. Including mind relaxation techniques, meditation and visualization can empower the patient and help her/him gain clarity and grounding.
However, deep tissue work can over stimulate the client and may put him/her at risk, especially if there is bone metastasis, and should be avoided. Massage should not be administered to the malignant area. If the tumor is deep and cannot be removed, massage should be administered with extreme caution
After a tumor is removed and the wound is healed, massage can be very helpful in preventing or releasing scar tissue adhesions.
3. What are the best types of massage for a cancer patient?
Depending upon the stage, diagnosis, and treatment, different types of bodywork are indicated during cancer treatment.
Once the treatment plan is established, Swedish massage can be revitalizing and grounding, and play an important role in the rehabilitation process after surgery and reconstruction. Massage therapy helps with restoring range of motion, decreasing scar tissue formation and speeding release of toxins and healing of wounds. The relaxing nature of the work can also help with relieving anxiety, mental and emotional stress that accompanies dealing with cancer.
Shiatsu is a form of Japanese bodywork based on the principles of Chinese medicine. Its focus is on restoring energy (Chi or Qi). Qi is believed to be the life force behind our existence. Shiatsu helps restore the body’s Qi flow and can help the client thrive through surgery, chemo and radiation by supporting the immune system, increasing the release of toxins and decreasing fatigue due to treatment.
Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD)
Breast cancer surgery and lymph node removal put a patient at risk for developing swelling of the affected arm or torso. Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) is a specialized technique that supports the function of the lymph system. It helps drain and detox the lymph, and relieve edema and post-surgery lymph drainage problems. This work requires specialty training and certification.
IntuAtsu and Core Alignment Technique
IntuAtsu is a unique, Shiatsu-based intuitive work that I have developed and found to make a profound difference in my client's recovery. I use abdominal diagnostic pulses and Chinese medicine wisdom to intuit the client’s physical emotional and spiritual needs. A combination of meridian work, massage, and mind relaxation techniques bring balance, harmonious flow and integration to all three aspects, and aid with releasing stresses of dealing with illness and treatment.
Core Alignment Technique is another gentle and non-invasive bodywork I developed based on movement and stretches and is excellent for the rehabilitation period.
4. Is massage safe for women who have had their lymph nodes removed or radiated?
Extra caution is necessary in this case due to the risk of developing swelling or Lymphedema (a risk that remains present for life). Deep pressure should be avoided on the affected quadrant (arm, chest and back), and only light massage should be administered on the compromised area. However, regular massage can be administered to the rest of the body.
5. What about massage during chemotherapy and radiation?
A waiting period of 4-7 days after chemotherapy treatment is recommended, depending on the treatment and the individual. While it is generally fine to receive bodywork during radiation, massage and oils should not be administered to the radiated area.
6. How about massage after surgery?
Depending on the type of surgery, reconstruction, and healing progress, it is recommended to wait 6-8 weeks before receiving bodywork on the affected area. However, energy work and gentle massage to non-affected areas can be offered as soon as the client feels up to it and the doctor approves it.
7. I've heard that breast massage is actually illegal?
Even though breast massage is essential for breast health and post surgery rehab, some states consider it a violation. Here In Colorado, for example, breast massage is illegal unless it is done for therapeutic reasons. Be sure to check the ACT rules in your state.
In any state, it is good practice to obtain a written consent prior to working on breasts or mastectomy area.
As a practitioner, it is important to be sensitive and aware that women may be self-conscious about their bodies, and more so after a mastectomy. Practitioners should make sure to provide privacy if needed by draping the area, so the client feels safe and comfortable.
To learn more about Massage Therapy for Breast Cancer, or to learn about continuing education classes for practitioners visit www.bodyworkwisdom.com
EERIS KALLIL LMT CLT-UE is an established massage therapist, Lymphedema therapist healing-arts practitioner, and a gifted instructor for over 29 years. She has a successful private practice in Boulder, CO and has been teaching NCBTMB approved classes about Massage and Breast Cancer, Core alignment Technique and IntuAtsu. Eeris is a 2014 inductee of the Massage Hall of Fame.