Massage Therapy & Chemo Side Effects

Chemotherapy can often result in fatigue, nausea, and sleep disruption. From a personal perspective, I experienced debilitating fatigue and questioned my oncologist as to whether massage would help. At that time, five years ago, there was no supportive data that this complementary therapy was effective.

Types of massage

Massage is defined as the rubbing of skin and muscles in the body. There are different forms of massage including Swedish, aromatherapy, and deep-tissue. Deep-tissue is usually not used during active chemotherapy.1

The general health benefits of massage include :

  • Physical- reduce inflammation and swelling, improve circulation, help sore muscles and reduce stress hormones.
  • Emotional- helps patients relax, causes release of endorphins which reduce pain, a good distraction.

For me, massage therapy physically feels good and is emotionally calming. I continue to schedule massage therapy as a cancer survivor.

Research findings on massage

A systematic review of studies on aromatherapy and massage found that massage consistently reduced anxiety and depression. It also lessened nausea and pain but not as consistently.2

A large study examined the effects of massage therapy in thirteen hundred patients with cancer. Overall the patients reported a reduction of pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.2

Research shows that massage of muscle and soft tissue does not spread cancer cells.

Current research has demonstrated that massage may:

  • Reduce chemotherapy nausea and vomiting
  • Lessen stress and anxiety
  • Reduce cancer fatigue. I felt less exhausted after having massage therapy. It would have been helpful if I had started the massage earlier in my treatment.
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve quality of life
  • Reduce pain1,2

It is important to discuss the use of massage therapy with your oncologist before beginning.

Caution may be necessary in some situations. For example, if your white blood cells (WBCs) are low, you want to avoid any possible sources of infection. Bruising may occur if your platelets are low. If your cancer has involved the bones, you may be at increased risk of fracture.

Getting started with massage

First and most importantly, talk with your oncologist. Discuss with your physician the symptoms that you would like relieved and whether massage therapy is appropriate.

Look for a licensed massage therapist who specializes in working with cancer patients. Your oncologist or healthcare provider may suggest someone. Your cancer care center may also be able to provide contact information.

Massage therapy is considered a type of complementary therapy and used to treat the whole patient. Complementary therapy is used in combination with conventional treatments. It cannot treat the cancer by itself, but it can help reduce side effects and improve the quality of life and wellbeing of the patient and cancer survivor.

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