Massage as therapy

France is acknowledged to be one of best countries for treating cancer. When i have been treated there, i watched local patients come in for massage, prescribed whilst they are on hormonal drugs, etc. This week, headlines in papers such as the Daily Mail highlight that our record for survival is way behind our European neightbours. At a tourist presentation put on by the French Tourist Office, talking to regional reps, they confirmed that massage is a major part of their Medical Spa treatments. It is the same in Italy, Germany, and most other countries with better post-cancer outcomes. So isn’t it time we started to use this ancient treatment ? Or is it too old-fashioned for today’s conveyor-belt oncologists ? Macmillan often have centres in our cancer hospitals where massage is offered, but it is regarded as an ‘extra’. Patients are offered 4 – 6 sessions – then that is it. Whereas the doctors will keep prescribing drugs for five years or more. Remember – currently there is no evidence that massage can TREAT cancer, or that using it will help us to avoid cancer. What there is, is evidence that having massage will be of benefit to anyone with cancer, particularly those taking strong drugs, who need to be relaxed and helped to ‘feel better’. Surely it is time that the NHS got off its bxxxxxxxde and negotiated with good therapy schools and major salons, to provide massage. This could be provided a minimal cost. I belong to Wahanda, who offer superb massage deals around Britain for around £20 to £30 for an hour – but talk to medics about this, and they freeze in horror at the thought of recommending a salon locally.

Dinosaurs live on

There are still some people in British medical circles who will tell you that massage is bad for cancer patients. When i sat on a Government Quango committee the representative from a major cancer charity informed me that massage might be recommended for patients in Europe, but not in UK. When i told her that the charity she worked for had just published a study saying how benefitical this was, she refused to believe me. There are none so blind as medics when you try and show them facts they don’t want to know ! Cancer Research UK has information about massage :
  • What massage therapy is
  • Why people with cancer use massage therapy
  • Evidence for massage in people with cancer
  • What having massage involves
  • Possible side effects of massage
  • Who shouldn’t use massage therapy
  • The cost of massage therapy
  • Finding a therapist
  • Useful organisations
As they say, massage therapy is a system of treatment that works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body – to relax you mentally and physically. It has been used for centuries. The types of massage most often offered to cancer patients are Aromatherapy massage and Reflexology (massage applied to points on the hands and feet with the aim of improving the health of other parts of the body). One of the main reasons that people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good, and is a way they feel they can help themselves. My personal feeling is that when you have a massage, the therapist gives you their undivided attention for a whole hour. No rushed ten minute appointments – you are the focus of their work. When one is frazzled and tearful because you can’t get anyone to listen, having someone listening to you, or more likely just focussing totally on you – for a whole hour, must make you feel better.

Evidence for massage in people with cancer

A UK study in 2007 found that that aromatherapy massage reduced anxiety and depression in people with cancer. An American study published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1,300 people with cancer, over 3 years. The types of massage used were
  • Swedish massage
  • Light touch massage
  • Reflexology
Those in hospital had 20 minute massage sessions, while those treated as outpatients had 60 minute sessions. The study found that, over all, massage therapy greatly reduced these symptoms in all patients
  • Pain
  • Sickness
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60 minute sessions. Swedish massage and light touch massage appeared to help more than reflexology. There is more on this on Cancer Research UK’s website. The CancerHelp UK sections on aromatherapy, reflexology and shiatsu contain information on the evidence to support the use of these types of massage therapy.

What having massage involves

If you haven’t had massage before, there is information on the site explaining what happens. On your first visit you will be asked some general questions on health, etc. your treatment. You will need to take off your clothes, and your therapist will then cover you in a gown or large towels, exposing only the parts of your body that they are working on. Don’t worry – they’ve seen it all before !

Who shouldn’t use massage therapy

There are some patients who should not have massage, or should wait until treatment is finished, so before going for your first massage, so ask your doctor’s advice. Some salons are to be applauded ; they will ask for a letter from your oncologist to say that it is all right for you to have massage.


Manual lymphatic drainage or MLD is a specialised treatment for this condition and generally an extremely efficient process PROVIDED it is done by a fully-qualified MLD specialist (generally they practice the Vodder method) and you have the treatment at regular intervals spread over a long period. Therefore, it is expensive to administer, and difficult to obtain on the NHS. See section on Lymphoedema that explains how to obtain this. It’s vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified to treat you. The best way to find a reliable therapist is to
  • Contact one of the massage organisations and ask for a list of therapists in your area
  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they’ve had and how long they’ve been practising and if they have treated cancer patients before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)
CancerHelp UK’s ‘about complementary and alternative therapies’ section has more information about how to find a reliable therapist, and the questions you should ask.