October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time than now to discuss the benefits of massage therapy for breast cancer survivors and patients.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Women with breast cancer can undergo various invasive treatments including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, which can be physically and emotionally draining. Although massage therapy cannot be used to treat cancer itself, it can be used as a method of helping to ease the symptoms of cancer and its treatments, as well as physically and emotionally help improve the persons’ quality of life.
Benefits of massage for women with breast cancer
For those persons undergoing cancer treatment, massage can play a vital and important role.
The five most common symptoms that can emerge in association with cancer and its treatment are pain, anxiety, nausea, fatigue and depression. Massage can benefit all of these symptoms.
Massage can reduce muscle stiffness and soreness by softening muscles and connective tissues that may be tight and uncomfortable.
It can provide a distracting experience that can help steer thoughts away from pain.
Massage also offers chemical-free relief and can reduce the need for pain medicine in some cases.
It stimulates nerve endings in the skin, releasing feel good hormones (endorphins) and blocking the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).
Massage can help decrease nausea.
It can boost immune function. Studies have shown an increase in white blood cells (natural killer cells) with massage which can help boost the immune system.
Can help with sleep problems by improving sleep quality and promoting relaxation.
Massage increases feelings of relaxation and well being.
Massage can provide the basic human needs of nurturing, caring and informed touch during a time when many cancer patients can feel isolated and dehumanized.
When is the best time to get a massage?
In the past oncologists advised against massage therapy fearing that it might promote the spread of cancer because of skin and muscle manipulation and an increase in local circulation. But, this has been proven to be NOT true. THERE IS NO research evidence that massage can cause existing cancer to spread. Recent evidence suggests the speed of blood or lymph fluid circulation has nothing to do with the spread of cancer cells, therefore validating that massage therapy is safe for people with cancer, within reason.
Massage at any stage of breast cancer can assist a patient through diagnosis to recovery.
Activates the parasympathetic nervous system to allow relaxation. This decreases adrenaline, lowers blood pressure and slows respiration.
Allows a release of emotions and feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, loneliness and helplessness.
Prepares the body for surgery by softening muscle and connective tissue, and alleviating tension.
Alleviates surgical pain and edema.
Assists in lessening the effects of anesthesia.
Softens and reduces scar tissue.
Boosts the immune system for improved healing.
Provides a safe and nurturing feeling.
Provides a sense of connection and support.
Reconnects a woman to her body and can help rebuild strength and courage.
It feels good.
During chemotherapy or radiation:
ONLY Light massage or energy work can be done one or two days before the next active treatment.
Swedish massage is contraindicated during this active treatment as it can overload the body.
Although massage therapy has been proven to be safe and effective for breast cancer patients there are certain circumstances where it is contraindicated or modifications need to be made.
Avoid laying on your stomach after breast surgery. Laying on your back, side or sitting is best.
Avoid deep tissue massage during chemotherapy or radiation as it can be too taxing on an already defenceless and stressed immune system. Only extremely light massage or energy work should be used during this stage.
Avoid the treatment area while the patient is undergoing radiation because the skin is extremely sensitive and can make this area feel worse.
If lymph nodes have been removed the therapist should only use very light touch around this area.
If lymphedema is present absolutely NO massage around the affected arm or underarm should be done because it could worsen the area. Only a massage therapist who specializes in Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) should treat the issues of lymphedema to help reduce the swelling.
Massage treatment – Getting started
If you have breast cancer or are a breast cancer survivor and are unsure about getting a massage therapy treatment you should talk with your doctor or oncologist first. Then find a massage therapist that you feel comfortable with for treatment. DON’T be shy. The massage therapist is there to help you and place NO judgement.
Be sure to explain what type of diagnosis, surgery, treatment, and symptoms that you have, what medication you are taking, and also what you are or are not comfortable with. They will then discuss the best plan of treatment for you.
Remember, the massage therapists touch can offer relief from physical pain and discomfort. It can remind you of the experience you are undergoing and the strength you are demonstrating to get through it. This sense of healing hands can offer support, validation and comfort when you need it most. If you have any questions or apprehensions, feel free to come and see me at WIN Health Solutions and I will do my very best to help ease those concerns, share information and develop the best plan for you.
Cheryl Chapman, L. (2018). Massage For Breast Cancer Patients - MASSAGE Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.massagemag.com/massage-for-breast-cancer-patients-33204/
Massage. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/types/massage
Massage and Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know - Breast Cancer News. (2018). Retrieved from https://breastcancer-news.com/2018/03/15/massage-and-breast-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
Massage therapy - Canadian Cancer Society. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/diagnosis-and-treatment/complementary-therapies/massage-therapy/?region=on
Massage Therapy for Breast Cancer Patients. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/11/06/massage-therapy-breast-cancer-patients
Power of touch: How specialized massage helps cancer patients. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2014/02/healing-hands--oncology-massage.html