The benefits of massage for cancer patients are well known to many healthcare professionals and their patients. For many years cancer care providers, including the NHS, have offered complementary therapy, such as massage, to patients as part of their supportive care programmes. Articles about the safety of massage for cancer patients have been published (Corbin, 2005) and national guidelines have been produced for the application of massage in cancer settings (Tavares, 2003). However, many awarding bodies who offer qualifications in complementary therapies still insist that cancer is a contraindication to massage. The result of this is that many cancer patients are being denied opportunities to experience this beneficial intervention.
Massage is indicated to aid relaxation and a sense of wellbeing and may also be effective in the management of side effects of cancer or cancer treatments (MacDonald, 2014; Lopez et al., 2014; Keir, 2011 and Pruthi et al., 2009). Symptoms that may be addressed through massage include anxiety, stress, depression, pain, nausea and fatigue and there is research based evidence to back this claim (Ernst, 2009). Furthermore, Beck et al. (2009) found that massage may facilitate a sense of dignity in cancer patients and have a positive effect on ‘hope’. Additionally, I have found that massage helps patients to cope better with their diagnoses and to improve body image. Other symptoms which may be managed are cancer related peripheral neuropathy, respiratory and digestive problems and sleep disturbance.
Treatments may be limited to part of the body, light touch and be relatively short in duration yet remain significantly beneficial to the patient. Frequently, confidence needs to be built between the therapist and patient in order to allay any concerns and to establish that therapeutic touch is welcome. As one would expect, the benefits of massage are likely to be time limited (Campeau et al., 2007). Massage treatments for carers also result in significant benefits for the carers of cancer patients (Cronfalk et al., 2010 and Goodfellow, 2003). In an article I had published with Julia Briscoe in 2013, we found that the perceived success of treatments may depend upon medical outcomes. Overall, outcomes improve when chemotherapy has been successful and decline when patients receive bad news.
Patients have left many comments for us on the evaluation forms they are asked to complete following a complementary therapy treatment, including massage. Many patients have stated that the provision of a relaxing environment for massage was important and socially isolated cancer patients felt that treatments gave them a reason to leave the house and provided someone empathic to talk to. Many patients stated that treatments left them feeling cared for and that treatments had been ‘something to look forward to’. One patient stated that massage had helped her to ‘let go and worry less’ and another commented that treatments had helped increase her ‘inner strength’.
In conclusion, massage may be described as an effective and relatively safe intervention for cancer patients, when it is delivered by a suitably trained therapist. Efficacy is particularly evidenced through the improvement of wellbeing, symptom management and other less obvious outcomes such as reducing social isolation and increasing a sense of dignity and hope.
Written by Neil Browne
Senior Complementary Therapist
Barts Health NHS Trust
Whipps Cross University Hospital