Is massage therapy safe during chemotherapy treatments?

Some people worry that massage can spread cancer cells throughout the body via the lymphatic system. However, researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body–not through massage.

Studies have also shown that massage seems to offer both physical and emotional benefits for people with cancer, including:

  • Makes them feel whole again
  • Helps them share feelings in an informal setting
  • Makes them feel more positive about their body
  • Rebuilds hope
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Helps to manage pain
  • Reduces Fatigue
  • Increases immune function
  • Increased mobility
  • Increases circulation
  • Breaks up scar tissue
  • Loosens mucus in the lungs
  • Promotes Sinus drainage
  • Provides relief of pain, arthritis, constipation, and colds

Related: The Benefits of Massage for Cancer Patients

Things to consider before getting massage during chemotherapy

Any person experiencing a compromised immune system, pre or post surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy should consider the following before having a massage:

Talk to Your Doctor and Massage Therapist

It is important to consult with your doctor and oncologist before undergoing massage therapy. Your doctor may be able to recommend a massage therapist skilled in working with cancer patients. It is also important to let your massage therapist know about your diagnosis, treatment, and any symptoms you may have. 

Note: Bilky Joda-Miller is a trained and skilled massage therapist and a breast cancer survivor as well. She is so passionate about helping cancer patients that she started the non-profit Mid-Michigan Massage Therapy Institute, in part, to offer free or reduced rate massage to cancer patients and survivors.

Light Massage to Avoid Bruising

People undergoing chemotherapy may have a decrease in red and white blood cells which can make the body more susceptible to bruising. Therefore, light massage is recommended for people currently in treatment.


Aromatherapy can add to the general relaxing properties of a massage and help to create a soothing and healing atmosphere.

Post Surgery

If you have recently had surgery, such as for breast cancer, you should only lay on your back, until your doctor decides it is safe for you to lay on your stomach. If you have different (or additional) surgery sites, the appropriate accommodations will be made. Hand and feet massage (reflexology) is also a great way to experience the benefits of massage without undergoing a full-body massage if that is not possible at this time.


For patients currently undergoing radiation, the massage therapist should avoid touching any sensitive skin in the treatment area. Massage and massage oils and creams may further irritate skin. If you aren’t experiencing any skin irritation, any massage to this area should be extremely light and conducted through a soft towel or cloth.

Lymph Nodes and Lymphedema

If you have had any lymph nodes removed, these sites should only receive very light touch on the affected arm and the area around the underarm.

With lymphedema, the affected arm and underarm areas should not be recieve traditional light massage. It might make the condition worse. However, manual lymphatic drainage massage is used instead. It is important that you work with a massage therapist familiar with this technique.

Finding the Right Massage Therapist

If you are in the Lansing, Michigan area, you need to look no further. Bilky Joda-Miller is a skilled massage therapist in working with cancer patients, survivors, and their caretakers. As a breast cancer survivor herself, she has a unique and personal perspective on the healing nature of massage. Call today to talk with Bilky and schedule your appointment. 517-898-2899 

The Research

Several clinical studies show that massage can reduce symptoms such as stress, nausea, pain, fatigue and depression.

  • A systematic review (1)  of studies on aromatherapy and massage for relieving symptoms in people with cancer looked at 10 studies including eight randomised controlled trials. It found that massage consistently reduced anxiety and depression. Massage also helped lower nausea and pain, but not as consistently.
  • A large American study (2) published in 2004 looked at the effects of massage therapy on almost 1300 people with cancer over three years. People in hospital had a 20-minute massage, and people treated as outpatients had a 60-minute session. The study found that overall, massage therapy reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. The benefits lasted longer in the patients who had the 60-minute session.
  • Another American study (3) of 39 people looked at the safety and effectiveness of massage in reducing stress hormone levels in patients with blood cancer. It randomised people to receive aromatherapy, massage or rest. The study concluded  that massage significantly reduced the stress hormone.

Fellowes D, Barnes K, Wilkinson SSM. Aromatherapy and massage for symptoms relief in patients with cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Iss 4.

Cassileth BR, Vickers AJ. Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer centre. J Pain Symptom Manage 2004 Sep; 28 (3): 244–9.

Stringer J et al. Massage in patients undergoing intensive chemotherapy reduces serum cortisol and prolactin. Psycho-Oncology 2008 Oct; 17 (10): 1024–31.

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