Massage Therapy is a system of treatment that works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body. It aims to relax you mentally and physically. It has been used for centuries. Massage may concentrate on the muscles, the soft tissues, or on the acupuncture points.

Massage therapists work in a variety of settings, including private offices, hospitals, nursing homes, studios, and sport and fitness facilities. Some also travel to patients’ homes or workplaces. They usually try to provide a calm, soothing environment.

Considering the long history of massage, its incorporation into Western medicine is only in its infancy. The potential for growth and research of the healing properties of therapeutic massage and body work has gained great momentum over the last fifty years, and the public demand for massage therapy is at an all-time high.

As a preventative practice, therapeutic massage is used in spas, gyms and work places all over the country. Using massage therapy to promote balance and maintain internal and external health is something that is now a standard part of the North American lifestyle.

In the health care industry, massage is commonly used in hospitals, nursing homes and birthing centers. It is also used in physical therapy and in chiropractic clinics to treat pain, increase circulation and expedite the healing of injured muscles.

Massage therapy is one of the most popular complementary therapies used by people living with cancer.

Massage Therapy Methods

There are many different types of massage therapy methods. A massage therapist may use just one type of massage or may combine different types during a treatment session.

  • Swedish Massage is the most common type of massage therapy in Canada. The massage therapist uses long strokes, pressure, stretches and friction to loosen tight muscles.
  • Deep Tissue Massage is done with stroking and finger pressure on deep layers of muscle tissue, where muscles are tight or knotted.
  • Lymphatic Massage may also be called lymphatic drainage. It uses slow, light, rhythmic touch and pressure to help the body move lymph fluid throughout the lymphatic system. It is most often used to decrease lymphedema.
  • Reflexology is based on the theory that every part of our body is represented by a different area on our feet. Pressing on specific reflex points on the feet can treat the area of the body where there are blockages in energy flow. Sometimes the therapist may also use reflex points on the hands or ears. Reflexology is often used in relaxation therapy to encourage the body to function better under stress.
  • Oncology Massage is a specialty where massage techniques are changed to meet the needs of people with cancer and undergoing cancer treatments.
  • Massage techniques can range from being soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk. They may sometimes even be a bit uncomfortable. Gentler forms of massage such as aromatherapy affect your nerve endings, possibly releasing chemicals called endorphins and reducing sensations of pain. Stronger methods, such as Swedish massage, aim to stimulate your blood circulation and lymphatic system, relax muscles and ease knotted tissues that can cause pain and stiffness.

    The History of Massage Therapy

    Massage therapy history dates back thousands of years to ancient cultures that believed in it’s medical benefits. The first written records of massage therapy are found in China and Egypt.

    2700 BCE: The first known Chinese text, the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine, which is a compilation of medical knowledge dating back some 4000 years, is called “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine”  aka the “Huangdi Neijing” or “The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon” – it describes the use of different massage techniques in treating specific ailments and injuries.

    This book was first published in English in 1949, but has become a staple in massage therapy training and is also often used as a textbook for teaching many other forms of alternative medicine such as acupuncture, acupressure and herbology.

    2500 BCE: Egyptian tomb paintings show that massage therapy was also a part of their medical tradition. Egyptians get the credit for pioneering reflexology. Their studies and traditions greatly influenced other cultures such as the Greeks and Romans.

    1500 and 500 BCE: The first known written massage therapy traditions come from India, but practice may have actually originated around 3000 BCE or earlier. Hindus used the art of healing touch in the practice of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word, translates to “life health” or “life science.” It is regarded as the basis of holistic medicine, combining meditation, relaxation and aromatherapy.

    Early 1800s: It was from this early massage therapy history that the Swedish doctor, gymnast and educator Per Henril Ling developed a method of movement known as the “Swedish Movement System.” This is regarded as the foundation for Swedish massage most commonly used in the West today.

    Although the “Swedish Movement System” was developed by Ling, it was Dutchman Johan Georg Mezger who defined the basic hand strokes of Swedish massage. Today the most common types of massage practiced in the western hemisphere are Swedish massage and the Japanese massage practice of Shiatsu.

    Massage Therapy as a Complementary Therapy

    While there is no evidence at this time that massage therapy can treat cancer itself, there is evidence that massage therapy helps people with cancer physically and emotionally, and it can improve their quality of life.

    One of the main reasons that people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good. It is a way they feel they can help themselves.

    Studies have shown that massage therapy for people with cancer help reduce stress, anxiety, pain, fatigue and depression. It can also help with problems sleeping (insomnia), improve sleep quality and reduce nausea.

    Generally, massage therapy can help lift your mood, improve your sleep and enhance your well-being. There is some evidence to help support these benefits.

    The focus of medical treatment is on curing cancer. Massage therapy is not curative but can play a supportive role in contributing to quality of life by tempering physical and associated psychological discomfort.

    Patients diagnosed with cancer are often overwhelmed, depressed, or find it difficult to cope and this is where massage therapy can make a difference; research has found that the biggest effects of massage therapy were in reducing anxiety and depression.

    The relationship that is built up between the massage therapist and the person with cancer also plays a big role in reassuring them and keeping them calm and in good spirits.

    How is Massage Therapy Administered?

    On your first visit for a massage, the therapist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. If they are concerned that massage may interfere with your health or any medicines you are taking, they may ask if they can contact your GP.

    This is to check that your GP is happy for you to have massage. In general, it is rare that your doctor will say no.

    Massage therapists may treat your whole body, or concentrate on a specific part of the body such as your head, neck or shoulders. Some types of massage such as shiatsu may also gently stretch parts of your body to release stiffness.

    When having massage therapy, you usually lie on a table. You can wear either loose-fitting clothing or you can be undressed (with a sheet covering your body). Massage on your neck, arms and shoulders can be done while sitting in a chair. Sometimes the therapy rooms have low lighting and quiet music to help you relax during your treatment.

    Most massage sessions usually last an hour, but this can depend on your therapist. Your therapist might play some relaxing music during the session.

    The amount of pressure your therapist applies when massaging you can vary greatly between the types of massage. It is important that you let your therapist know if you feel uncomfortable and want them to stop at any time. However, most people say that having a massage is very relaxing and soothing.

    Massage Therapy for Children with Cancer

    Massage therapy, nurturing touch techniques and touch therapy for children who have been diagnosed with Cancer are highly recommended and are being constantly integrated into mainstream cancer programs and centres across the globe.

    Studies have indicated that many complementary therapies control treatment-related physical and emotional symptoms including pain, fatigue, nausea, xerostomia, anxiety, and depression, and children with cancer benefit greatly from massage therapy.

    According to the National Cancer Institute, 15% to 25% of cancer patients become clinically depressed at some point during their illness.

    And of course, the very nature of possible hospitalisation, isolation and the treatment for this very serious illness often makes things worse, especially for children.

    Paediatric Oncology Massage requires specific skills to adapt massage and nurturing touch techniques suited for the child’s specific cancer treatment and treatment plan. Massage therapy for children with cancer should not be aggressive, which is why it is important to get a massage therapist who is specifically trained in giving massages to Children with cancer.

    Children with cancer develop a very close relationship with their carers, including their massage therapist, and it is often the strength of these relationships that are perceived as the strongest support.

    Children with cancer who have had massage therapy noted that massage therapy helped promote sleep or relaxation; that it reduced muscle tension, or that it provided a distraction from the cancer experience.

    Some parents have also reported that they experienced a release of their own suffering when they saw a change in the affect of their child in response to the arrival of the therapist. For others, their child’s massage therapy sessions gave them a moment’s respite – therapists also noted that most caregivers/parents refused massage therapy for themselves (which would actually have relieved their stress a lot too) in favour of their sick children.

    Massage is one of the most commonly used pain management strategies for paediatric patients newly diagnosed with leukaemia.

    There are various Paediatric Oncology Massage Courses  on offer globally for massage therapists who have completed their basic training and who are interested in working with this special population.  Therapists can choose whether they wish to work with adults with cancer or children with cancer, and whether they prefer to work in hospitals or in palliative care facilities.

    Therapists first do a theoretical component during which they learn about cancer and its various manifestations, treatments, side effects, and the illness trajectory, emotional and physical concerns and coping styles of cancer patients and their families before moving on to the practical training.

    Therapists treating patients with cancer do have much to learn, however, not only about the processes of the disease itself, but about the effects of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy which take their toll on the human body and psyche. Clinical decision-making requires knowledge of the current immune status of the patient, the level of various markers in the blood, and which areas of the body are undergoing or have been recently radiated.

    All of this is why it is crucial that only a qualified Paediatric Oncology Massage Therapist does any massage therapy on individuals with cancer, and even more so on children with cancer.

    Research into Massage Therapy in People with Cancer

    There is no scientific evidence that massage can treat cancer. But massage is commonly used to help people feel better and to reduce some of the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment.

    Some people worry that massage in the area of a tumour can increase the flow of blood and lymph fluid, causing cancer cells to break away and travel to other parts of the body. Recent evidence suggests that the speed of blood or lymph fluid circulation has nothing to do with the spread of cancer cells. Massage therapy is safe for people with cancer.

    Various trials have be conducted as to whether massage therapy can help people with cancer and have concluded that massage can help to reduce symptoms such as pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue).

    Massage Therapy seems useful as a supportive therapy in various types of cancer, including breast cancer and is a cost-effective treatment that can help to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in people with cancer who are seriously ill.

    Another study found that teaching carers massage therapy techniques helped significantly reduce in symptoms in patients and also gave the carers more confidence, comfort and skill in using touch and massage to care for the patients.

    Side Effects and Risks

    Most people don’t have any side effects from having a massage. Some individuals may feel a bit light-headed, sleepy, tired or thirsty afterwards. Your massage therapist may advise you to drink a glass of water when your treatment has finished. Some people become a bit emotional or tearful for a while afterwards.

    Allergic reactions are possible if aromatherapy oils are used during the massage.

    Who Shouldn’t Use Massage Therapy

    In some situations, massage techniques may need to be adapted. This may apply if you

    • Are having cancer treatment
    • Are very weak
    • Have bone fractures
    • Have heart problems
    • Suffer from arthritis
    • Are pregnant or breastfeeding

    Always talk to your doctor before using any type of massage therapy offered commercially. It may be that an adapted treatment offered within a cancer care centre or hospice would be more appropriate for you. It is important to make sure that your massage therapist is fully qualified and insured.

    • People with cancer should avoid very deep massage. Gentler types may be safer. Some people worry that having a massage when you have cancer may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body, but there is no research that has proven this to be true.
    • If you have osteoporosis or a cancer that has spread to the bone (called bone metastasis), having physical manipulation or deep pressure massage may lead to a bone breaking (fracture).
    • If you are having radiotherapy you should avoid massaging the treated area. And don’t have massage to any area of your body where the skin is broken, bleeding or bruised.
    • You should also avoid general massage therapy to your arms or legs if they are swollen because of lymphoedema. There is a particular type of massage used for lymphoedema called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), which is a very specialised treatment and people who need MLD are referred to a lymphoedema specialist by their doctor or specialist nurse.


    Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

    Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.