Massage and cancer: is it safe and what are the potential benefits?

Someone getting a back message

Can a person with cancer have a massage? Can massage spread cancer? We asked expert John Holman to explain oncology massage and answer people’s fears.

Massage for those living with cancer, sometimes known as oncology massage, has been shown to benefit people living with cancer in different ways. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty about massage therapy for cancer patients, including whether it is safe, whether there’s a risk that massage can cause cancer to spread, and whether all types of massage are suitable for all types of cancer.

John Holman, massage expert
John Holman

John Holman is one of the most experienced massage therapists in the UK and we sat down with him to help us understand the sometimes confusing information regarding going for a massage while living with cancer.

Some of the most common questions we hear in our online cancer support groups are: can I still go for a massage? Are there any types of massage I need to avoid? Is massage only safe for specific cancer types?

Massage is safe

John writes: Yes, massage is safe if you are a person living with, or beyond, cancer – even if you have been told that your cancer is life-limiting. Massage should be available to you, if you want to have it.

In reality, not all types of massage are suitable for those living with cancer: deep tissue massage is best avoided, and a number of aromatherapy oils may cause negative reactions as well. The benefit of massage is not restricted to particular cancers but, as always, your healthcare professional will be able to advise you if massage is not suitable for you.

A great deal of fear comes from the therapist not wishing to cause harm – businesses owners are also trying to do the right thing with regards to protecting the guest, therapist and business.

It might be helpful to understand a little of the history about why so much confusion still exists, especially if you have been turned away when you wanted a massage treatment.

Let’s start with some proper research and good basic findings.

Credible research into the effects of massage for those having cancer treatment has shown positive outcomes. Here are my top four findings:

  • Massage can decrease nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
  • Massage can reduce the perception of pain.
  • Massage can improve sleep quality.
  • Massage may reduce the severity of cancer-related fatigue.

Fear of spread

A woman with cancer has a massageHowever, the number one reason that therapists or businesses may refuse to treat you is the fear that the act of massage could spread cancer cells to other parts of your body.

I am happy to report that there is simply no scientific evidence to support this belief. If you are, however, still unsure about getting a massage it’s best to speak to your specialist cancer nurse, as they are the most up-to-date with your medical history and should be able to answer any queries.

The misunderstandings about massage and cancer go all the way back to the founding fathers of what is now the spa and beauty profession. This really started in the 1950s and 60s when there were fewer than 20 beauty salons across the whole of the UK. These early pioneers did a great job in starting to get the profession organised and trained.

Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably at the time, they were cautious about treating people with cancer given the early and emerging science about cancer treatments. Sadly, as the science improved and the spa and beauty sectors grew, no corrections were made to the original approach, and a culture of fear started to emerge that still exists today.

Promoting training

On the positive side of things, these outdated and obsolete beliefs are being challenged and the profession is beginning to change. High quality standards have been drawn up based on the very latest scientific understandings about massage and cancer.

The leading professional associations are now actively promoting massage for people with cancer and training is available here in the UK for therapists and businesses that want to become qualified and insured to provide treatments. Credible organisations such as The Standards Authority for Touch in Cancer Care or Think Tree Hub have lists of qualified therapists and approved training organisations.

Most of the industry has some way to go but we are making progress. In the meantime, you can reach out to these organisations if you are looking for trained professionals who are specialised in providing massages to people living with and beyond cancer.

About the author

John Holman is an industry pioneer and one of the UK’s most experienced therapists with more than 31 years and 55,000 hours of hands-on experience. He owns the Massage Matters Clinic, which is based in Thame, Oxfordshire.

John invented the Hydrotherm massage system – an evolutionary approach to massage where the client does not need to turn over during the treatment. There are around 2,500 therapists using his system in the UK. He is the director of massage training for The Massage Company, founder board member and expert for The Standards Authority for Touch in Cancer Care, and an expert for the professional association Think Tree.