Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2019.

Massage therapy is a broad term that covers several different hands-on techniques in which a therapist manipulates the muscles and soft tissues of the body. It is often used to reduce tension and pain, improve circulation, and encourage relaxation. There are several different styles of massage, including Swedish, deep tissue, Shiatsu, aromatherapy, and others. The styles vary in the amount of pressure used, the types of strokes or movement, and the underlying theoretic framework.1,2

Types of massage for cancer patients

Integrated cancer treatment may include massage. The types of massage most frequently used in cancer treatment include:

  • Swedish massage, also known as Western or classic massage, which is composed of five basic strokes and is designed to relax, rehabilitate, or maintain health 1,2
  • Aromatherapy massage, which incorporates essential oils in the massage to balance, harmonize and promote health 1,3
  • Reflexology, (the most common being foot reflexology), which stimulates areas of the body that are believed to correspond to other parts of the body 1,2
  • Acupressure, which is based in traditional Chinese meridian theory and uses pressure on specific points of the body to stimulate energy 1,2

Benefits of massage for cancer patients

While massage therapy is most often used to reduce muscle tension and soreness, clinical studies of the use of massage therapy in cancer patients focus on symptom control, especially for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain.1 Other potential benefits from massage therapy include that it may improve the quality of sleep, reduce fatigue, and reduce nausea.4

In an analysis of multiple publications from clinical trials studying the effects of massage in patients with lung cancer, researchers concluded that there is sufficient data to support massage therapy as an effective complementary approach for cancer supportive care. The data from multiple studies suggests that massage therapy reduces anxiety, depression and pain. The data supporting massage’s benefits on anxiety was stronger than its effects on depression. The analysis also reviewed the safety of massage in cancer patients. Serious adverse effects from massage therapy were extremely rare and unlikely to occur when a trained professional performed massage.1


Previously, there was a myth that massage therapy might cause cancer to spread, particularly because of its ability to increase circulation. However, that has not proven to be true. However, cancer and its treatments can put people at risk for complications from massage therapy, and to reduce this risk, patients are encouraged to seek massage therapy from a licensed massage therapist, particularly one who has received specialized training in oncology massage (massage for cancer patients). Patients should talk to their doctor before beginning massage to make sure it is appropriate.4

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