Massage is known to help reduce stress, anxiety and pain, and relieve tension. Research shows a cancer diagnosis and treatment can make it harder to relax and be calm. Massage therapy may be an option to reduce stress and support your emotional health during and after treatment. It may also help ease major pain in the short-term.

There are many massage techniques to choose from. They range from light, surface touch to deep-muscle kneading. If you have active cancer, avoid deep-muscle massage. Most people will see similar benefits from light and medium-force massage.

You can get a massage at a spa, chiropractic clinic, in your home and even at some cancer centers.

The safety of massage

When you look for a massage therapist, it is important to find someone trained in massage for people with breast cancer or who has experience with medical or oncology massage. Be sure to tell your message therapist about your diagnosis before you begin so that the approach can be tailored to your needs. Your doctor may recommend different types of massage depending on where you are in your treatment plan and whether your cancer has metastasized, or spread, to distant parts of your body.

There are very few side effects of massage therapy. During massage, you should not feel pain or major discomfort. If you do, be sure to let your massage therapist know right away. Your therapist can adjust the pressure to make you more comfortable. There are a few special situations to watch for:

  • If you have lymphedema, your healthcare team may recommend you see a provider trained in lymphatic massage. You should look for someone who has experience and certification in this area.
  • If you are taking blood thinners, avoid deep-tissue massage to prevent bruising or bleeding.
  • If you have metastatic breast cancer to the bone, light massage may be a good option, as it avoids pressure. Massaging the area on or near a tumor is not recommended.

To find a board certified massage therapist in your area, you can visit the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.

Common massage techniques

  • Swedish massage is the most common technique. It involves long strokes that flow toward the heart using a kneading, rolling or tapping motion. Therapists may use their hands, elbows or forearms to work the muscles. In some cases, your therapist may put oil on your skin to allow for smoother movement. In many spas or clinics, you may be able to ask for a Swedish massage to be light, medium or deep. Deep massage should be avoided for those with active disease.
  • Aromatherapy massage combines the massage technique you choose with the use of scented essential oils, taken from roots, herbs, flowers and trees. Your therapist will fill the room with the scent of an oil based on your goal for the session. For example, if you want to relax, you may use lavender. Little is known about the benefits of aromatherapy, but some studies find it can help with nausea, relaxation and sleep. One note: If chemotherapy affected your sense of smell, you may not find the same scents as pleasant as before. People may also have skin sensitivities to certain oils and scents. Changes in the skin due to radiation therapy may increase these sensitivities.
  • Reflexology involves massaging pressure points on the hands, feet and ears. Pressure points are specific areas of the body a practitioner presses on or massages to relieve stress or pain. Like acupuncture, reflexology is based on the belief that massaging these areas relieves symptoms in other parts of the body.
  • Lymphatic massage uses a very light touch to help move blocked lymph fluid to a part of the body where it can drain better, reducing swelling caused by lymphedema. Lymphedema is swelling caused by the buildup of lymph fluid after lymph nodes are removed by surgery or damaged by radiation therapy.