Cancer and Massage. It’s Safe

“You have cancer.  Now, listen carefully. I want you to stay very, very still.  We don’t want the cancer to spread with all of your moving around,” said no doctor ever.

When people ask if it’s safe to massage a person affected by cancer, what they’re mostly asking is, “Will massage spread cancer?”

The answer to this question poses a challenge to the long-held assumption that massage increases circulation.  Massage may improve local circulation if there are soft tissue issues that are impeding normal blood flow, but when I massage your leg, I’m not moving more blood into your arm.

In related news, think about an average day.  We go from horizontal to vertical each morning.  We go up and down stairs.  We walk.  We bend. We lift. No massage I have ever met is going to move blood like these simple acts of daily living.

Now let’s talk about just how intricate and fancy cancer is.  We’re still learning about cancer, but we know that cancer is the result of an accumulation of genetic mutations. There is still a lot that we don’t know about massage, but I’ll eat my hat and yours if we someday discover that massage therapy causes genes to mutate.

When cancer travels to a distant site, the traveling cells have to survive the trip to the new location.  Science is pretty clear that a majority of such cells don’t survive this excursion.  The few bedraggled cells that do survive can only continue to live if the tissues in that new location have the blood, the oxygen, the hormones, the folic acid…the everything that this particular cancer needs to settle, thrive and grow.

Oh, and then the cancer has to set up a new blood supply.  There’s a reason plumbers get paid so much, people.  You ever tried to put a new pipe in?  Not easy.

So, physiologically?...yes, it’s safe to massage a person who has cancer.  We know we will not spread a person’s cancer with massage.  But this is where most helpful, do-gooder, people-loving massage therapists get stuck. “If it’s safe, then why do we have to have ‘oncology massage’ training?” 

Oncology massage is one part safety, two parts humanity and professional excellence. There are numerous cancer-related complications that open the door to real, permanent and even grave harm.  An understanding of these considerations is essential.  However, at its heart, oncology massage is about understanding that helping and not causing physical harm is simply not enough.

It’s about knowing when there is nothing that even the most expert hands can do to make it better…and about being ok with that.

The experience of cancer and cancer treatment is one that is often accompanied by uniquely acute pain, anxiety, uncertainty and stress.  Oncology clients aren’t looking for a smiley cheerleader.  They’re looking for a capable human with a clear grasp of what can and can’t be accomplished.  They’re looking for a person who knows that he or she is enough, no matter what happens in the next hour.  The practice of oncology massage rests as much in self-knowledge and the cultivation of a gentle and present relationship with our inner fixer as it does in clinical skill.

So, “Why oncology massage?”, you ask.  Imagine yourself going through cancer treatment.  Maybe you’re in pain.  Maybe your hair has fallen out or you have neuropathy or shortness of breath or you’re inescapably nauseated.  You decide you need support in the form of massage therapy.

You find yourself standing in front of two doors.  One door says, “Massage, All Are Welcome…We’ll Figure it Out.”  On the other door, the sign reads, “Oncology Massage: Come As You Are. I am Skilled, Present and At Your Service”.

Which door would you choose?

Learn more in Lauren's webinar linked below, or seek out a Society for Oncology Massage approved educator here.