Massage for Cancer

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy is a touch therapy where techniques such as kneading, rubbing, stroking and tapping are performed on the soft tissues of the body. Massage is thought to help people feel more relaxed, and may relieve pain and stress. It can improve circulation and lower blood pressure. (1)

It relieves muscular tension, helps clear lactic acid and other waste substances. As these are cleared this helps reduce pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints. It helps increase mobility and flexibility.

Massage and Childhood Cancer

Massage therapy can be used for both the child and the parents. (2)

For any cancer patient and especially a child, a little relief can mean a lot. Extra benefits which occur during a massage are that levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine spike, oxytocin (which is the nurturing, cuddle hormone) are increased, as the stress hormone cortisol levels reduce. (3)

Given that 15-20% of cancer patients become clinically depressed at some stage during their illness, the release of these feel-good neurotransmitters can be very important. Even for those who do not reach the stage of clinical depression, hospitalisation, ongoing treatments and dealing with stress can make massage an ideal therapy for many.

If one or both parents also receive massage treatments this can be very helpful for both the parents and child, as anxiety in a parent can be contagious to the child.

Some of the common reason to use massage as part of a holistic treatment for childhood cancer:

  • Both the parents and the child can easily avail of massage, which helps the individuals as well as the family unit
  • To manage anxiety
  • To manage stress
  • To improve well being
  • To reduce pain
  • To feel the detoxifying benefits of massage
  • To feel the benefits of an increase in feel-good neurotransmitters
  • To take control of some aspect of their treatment


1. A study which has been part funded by NCCAM (National Centre For Complementary and Alternative Medicine) researchers has investigated the benefits of massage versus simple touch therapy in patients with advanced cancer.

The results of this study show that both groups experienced significant improvements in pain relief, physical and emotional distress as well as quality of life. However the immediate improvement in pain and mood was great in the group receiving massage.

The conclusion of the study was that massage therapy can provide some immediate relief for patients with advanced cancer. The study also said that it was beneficial for family members or volunteers to administer simple touch, as it may provide relief and can be performed by untrained family members. (4)

2. In the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, the results of a study called “Children with Cancer and Blood Diseases Experience Positive Physical and Psychological Effects from Massage Therapy” were published in 2009.

The background for the study was that previous research had shown positive effects from massage therapy had been demonstrated for premature infants and also children with asthma, arthritis and other illnesses. This led to the need for a study which focused on children with cancer and blood diseases.

Thirty children with cancer or blood diseases, between the ages of 6 months to 17 years of age, participated in the study. Physical health and mental well being were measured before the study commenced.

The treatment group received 20 minute sessions of Swedish Massage Therapy once daily for approximately 4 days.

The results indicated significant psychological improvements on state anxiety, trait anxiety, and emotional state. It also indicated significant physical improvements on muscle soreness, respiratory rate and overall progress.

The conclusion of the study was that Massage Therapy can reduce psychological and physical distress and can have a positive effect on quality of life in children with cancer and blood diseases. (5)

What Happens in a Massage Session?

It should be noted firstly that paediatric massage is a natural extension of working with the whole family yet the technique differs to enhance the child’s experience.

Many massage therapists find that children respond very differently to touch and are often willing and excited recipients. (6)

Children at different stages of growth and development have different emotional, physical and psychological needs. Therefore simplistically paediatric massage can be divided up into massage for toddlers, pre-school, school age children, adolescents and young adults. However a good massage therapist will adapt quickly to whatever the current needs of the child whatever his or her age.

Massage sessions can last from 15 to 90 minutes. The first treatment follows a case history being taken, which is usually relatively short compared with some other complementary therapies. In the case of child massage a parent may accompany the child.

As the massage starts the therapist will feel areas of the body which are holding more stress and work with them. The massage techniques employed will be adapted by the therapist to suit the patient. (7)

A Brief History of Massage

There is a biblical reference from around 493 B.C. which documents daily massage with olive oil and myrrh as part of the beauty regime for the wives of Xerves.

Massage was recorded in the 2nd century B.C. in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, where it was recommended as a treatment for certain ailments. The Indian ancient traditional system of Ayurvedic Medicine also prescribes massage for various ailments. In Greece and Rome physicians used it as a primary method to treat pain.

The word comes from the French massage "friction of kneading", or from the Arabic massa meaning "to touch, feel or handle" or in Latin massa meaning "mass, dough.

As human beings we still have the instinct to touch or rub an area of our body which has pain, however as a therapy it seems that massage techniques did not develop further until Per Henrik Ling (15 November 1776–3 May 1839), who was a Swedish medical-gymnastic practitioner, took it to the next stage.

Ling had been travelling abroad after university and became friends with a Chinese fellow called Ming, who was a martial artist and tui na (a Chinse manipulative therapy) practitioner. They became exercise partners and years later when Ling returned to Sweden with injuries and rheumatism he healed himself by applying these pressing-pulling and squeezing exercises he had learnt. This was why he turned his attention to applying his experience for the benefit of others.

Up until the 1960/70s massage was used to in America by nurses to help patients to sleep and ease their pain. Today massage is growing in popularity and is used by individuals for relaxation, to maintain health, as well as sports people, those with illnesses and some businesses use it for their staff.