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Is Massage Safe for People with Cancer - demolishing the myths

Updated: Jan 8

Thoughts about Massage & Cancer - demolishing the myths

Way back in 2008, I joined my local health and beauty academy to learn the art of massage. I was working full time then as a Personal Assistant in the telecoms industry, and am still not quite sure why I signed up for the course. I was reasonably happy in a comfortable job, and wasn't looking for a new career, but something caught my attention and drew me there. I think I wanted to learn a new skill, and I wasn't finding my hi-tech telecoms job particularly challenging or fulfilling.

One of the first things I learnt in my therapist training was how to conduct formal consultation with a client before a treatment. That is, a fact-finding session on why the client has come to you, what they expect from a treatment, and their medical history. We want to know their medical history because there are a number of physical conditions that are considered "contra-indicated" for massage i.e. might restrict the way a treatment is performed, or totally prevent it.

Cancer is one of those conditions.

If someone had cancer, they couldn't have a massage. That's how we were taught back then. It wasn't fully explained why .. but we assumed it was because they thought massage might spread cancer, and the insurers simply wouldn't cover it. If the client got a letter from their doctor saying it was ok, then that might be a different matter. But we weren't trained in massage for people with cancer. Even if they had a doctors note. Most doctors never replied to our requests for their permission anyway! Confusing. And all a bit ... well, "taboo". People just didn't like to use that "C Word."

Today, times have changed a little and are continuing to change!

Professor Karol Sikora studied medical science and biochemistry at Cambridge and stated:

"The contention that massage is always contraindicated because of the idea that it might cause cancer cells to break off and spread is simply wrong. There is really no evidence to support this."

Cancer cannot be spread by massage, or any other movement that squeezes blood and lymph around your body. Otherwise people with cancer would need to go home, lie down, and stay very very still the whole time until a cure could be found.

However, what we know now to be true is quite the opposite, as clarified by Dr Carl Simonton of the Simonton Cancer Research & Counselling Centre, California:

"Rather than making demands on the immune system, massage actually supports it."

Hospices throughout the UK provide massage therapies to the benefit of their patients. Penny Brohn Cancer Care supports massage as safe and beneficial for those with cancer when practised by a therapist with appropriate experience and/or training. In treating the person holistically as a whole, the Amethyst Trust says that in their experience, regular massage can:

  • Lead to improved physical and emotional confidence

  • Help people express emotions and deal with anger

  • Reduce isolation and reduce fear

  • Reduce nausea

  • Restore a sense of balance and wellbeing

  • Provide a sense of calm

  • Reduce symptoms of pain and discomfort

  • Improve sleep

  • Help people to feel special

There are still a plethora of myths surrounding whether massage is safe whilst undergoing treatment for cancer, and the reality is it is perfect safe, providing the necessary adaptations are made. Some TYPES of massage are not suitable; deep tissue or sports, for example, isn't recommended. Equally, in some cases, very light pressure isn't considered safe either. Much of this relates to how the person's lymphatic system is stimulated by the massage, and whether the lymphatic system has been compromised due to surgery, or even radiation therapy.

Therapists must undergo specialised training for cancer support massage so they feel confident to carry out a treatment for someone on their cancer journey, and of course, so their client feels safe and confident in their therapist's hands too.

It is more than just a little heart-warming to know that there are a now number of organisations who have stepped up to take on the task of re-educating the industry and putting training courses in place so that therapists in spa's, health centres and private practice can confidently and safely carry out a massage for someone in treatment for, or recovering from, cancer surgery or treatment.

The first that I encountered was the Amethyst Trust who teamed up with Penny Brohn Cancer Care and John Holman Therapy Solutions to provide training on the Hydrotherm massage system with a treatment called Hydrotherm Tranquil Sea massage. This is a spa-style massage that is adapted as appropriate. A typical adaptation might be where lymph nodes have been surgically removed or weakened, as mentioned above, or if PICC lines are in place in the arms.

Imagine if you always loved a regular monthly massage before your diagnosis. Then were told you can't have a massage for at least 5 years because you got cancer. How would you feel, especially at a time when you probably need a massage the most?

In addition to the Hydrotherm Tranquil Sea, a friend of mine in treatment for cancer had recently volunteered to have a treatment for students learning Cancer Touch Therapy™. After hearing her glowing testimonial, and realising that I personally knew the Instructor from a previous health coaching training we'd both attended, I accepted the nudge from the Universe to look into this too, and must say am so glad I did.

Cancer Touch Therapy™ is not massage, but is a deeply relaxing spa ritual that combines gentle touch with smooth, slow, rythmic Tui Na Chinese movements. It uses Made for Life 100% organic preparations, providing a lovely connection with nature and creating a complete window of stillness in time. This is a treatment in its own right but I also combine it with the Hydrotherm Tranquil Sea on occasion.

Clients who have these treatments give wonderful feedback. It isn't just the treatment itself, but also the one to one care, the supportive touch, and complete time out all really help.

I would really encourage any therapists reading this to ask themselves how they feel about this topic, and consider undertaking additional training and introducing a cancer-care aspect into their own practices. It's a wonderful thing to be able to offer and from my own experience, deeply rewarding.

I would also recommend the book "Medicine Hands" by Gayle MacDonald MS LMT. It endorses the importance of touch for cancer patients, and teaches bodywork practitioners, oncology professionals, patients and family how massage can safely support patients as they receive treatment and during their recovery process. I continue to find it a valuable resource and point of reference.

It was only during a recent interview with a local advertising magazine that I realised why it was so important to me to be able to provide that nurturing window of time for people with chronic illness or in recovery from cancer. As we sat in my treatment room at home, chatting about our passions in life and how blessed and grateful we feel when we can do what we love for a living, serving others and using our unique gifts, I had a sudden flashback to when I was in my early twenties. This distant memory resurfaced and suddenly I was transported back to my dad's beside as he lay at home in his final hours. He looked so frail and weak. He was in so much pain and there was no "end of life" pack there in those days to help him get any relief. I wanted to put my arms around him and hold him, but he suddenly seemed to look so small and weak, barely managing to draw breath in the shadow of his previous big strong body, I was frightened if I touched him I might hurt him, or damage him somehow. I wanted to give him some comfort and didn't know how. And of course, I never got chance again. It's really important to show people how much we care. When we feel loved and cared for, it helps us heal on levels far and beyond our physical self and touches our very souls.

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