Cancer Care Massage Therapy on Every Spa Menu – Universal Companies
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Cancer Care Massage Therapy on Every Spa Menu

May 10 • Massage • By Lori Vargas, Founder of 360 Wellness Education

Creating an inclusive menu that embraces clients with cancer will not only give you the ability to provide solace to an underserved group, but to grow your business. Increasingly, cancer centers are offering massage therapy as complementary treatment, and this has paved the way for spas and wellness centers to offer these services for oncology patients. While not a direct cancer treatment, like chemotherapy or surgery, massage offers the benefit of alleviating some of the uncomfortable or painful symptoms of cancer and the side effects of medical care.

The term "integrative treatment" refers to the practice of combining traditional cancer treatments that address the tumor, with "alternative" treatments that ease symptoms. This approach is being widely adopted by healthcare providers and is an opportunity for spas to contribute to a patient’s well-being.

The research is young, but massage therapy may help with some of the conditions that accompany a cancer diagnosis, including pain, cancer-related fatigue, anxiety, and general quality of life. It does meet evidence-based guidelines for aiding in the relief of depression and mood disorders in women with breast cancer. Massage may also play a role in the prevention of neuropathic pain related to chemotherapy drugs such as Taxol. It should be noted that not all cancer patients are prime candidates for massage services, because of some potential unintended consequences such as infection, bruising, and skin breakdown.

Cancer Care Massage Therapy and Techniques

Choosing the best type of massage can vary depending on the clients’ symptoms and how cancer and cancer treatments have affected their body. Gentle massage is tolerated by most people with cancer, and is sufficient to release "endorphins," the "feel good" chemicals released by the brain that can reduce pain. For those who have muscle tightness and stiffness, stronger methods of massage may be needed. Common forms of massage therapy include:

  • Gentle massage therapy
  • Swedish relaxation massage therapy
  • Aromatherapy massage therapy
  • Myofascial massage therapy
  • Shiatsu massage therapy

Deep tissue massage therapy. NOTE: This type of massage is not usually used during active cancer treatment but may be used to help with chronic pain and limited motion due to scar tissue after treatment is completed.

Cancer Care Massage Therapy General Health Benefits

Researchers believe massage therapy may be helpful for both the physical and psychological benefits it offers. Physically, massage may:

  • Decrease inflammation and swelling
  • Improve circulation
  • Help sore muscles
  • Lower the level of stress hormones in the blood

Emotionally, massage may help people relax, provide a distracting experience that takes their mind off of the pain and any fear they may be feeling. It can reduce anxiety by lowering cortisol levels and sometimes help minimize depression.

Cancer Care Massage Therapy Possible Risks

There are potential adverse effects of massage therapy for cancer patients. They include the following:

  • Infection: The risk of infection is greater if white blood cell count is low due to chemotherapy, recent surgery, or open sores from radiation therapy or other conditions.
  • Bruising: If platelet count is low due to chemotherapy there is increased likelihood to develop bruises.
  • Risk of fracture: If bone metastases or the client is taking medications that can weaken bones there may be an increased risk of fractures. While bone metastases are sometimes mentioned as a contraindication for massage, there is also some evidence that massage may reduce pain in people with bone metastases. In this setting, it's important to see a massage therapist who is certified in oncology massage.
  • Skin breakdown: Rubbing, especially during deep tissue massage, may result in skin breakdown, especially during radiation therapy.
  • Reactions to the lotions or oils: It's important to be aware of any allergies or sensitivities of the client.

Cancer Care Massage Therapy Contraindications

Light massage is safe for most people with cancer, but there are some settings in which massage therapy should be avoided altogether among people with cancer. Some of these include:

  • Known blood clots: Massage should not be done for anyone who has been diagnosed with a deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary emboli.
  • Infection: If someone is currently fighting an infection, especially if a fever is present, massage therapy should not be used.
  • Severely low white blood cell count: If severe leukopenia is present, massage therapy should be deferred until an oncologist gives the clear.
  • Severe thrombocytopenia: For people who have very low platelet counts, massage therapy should not be performed.
  • Lymphedema: Lymphedema is a relative contraindication to massage. Swelling of a part of the body due to damage to the lymphatics can occur with several types of cancer especially melanoma, but is most well known as the arm swelling that occurs in some women with breast cancer. If lymphedema is present, a type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage may be needed, but this is usually performed by a therapist who specializes in the treatment of lymphedema.


Generally, massage therapy should also avoid sites of active tumor growth, areas around a recent incision, and any areas where an open wound or sore is present. During chemotherapy, deep tissue massage should be avoided even if blood counts are all normal.

About Lori Vargas, MBA, CPA

Lori is the founder of 360 Wellness Education, a culmination of her experiences over two decades as the founder of Spa Vargas Wellness and International Massage & Spa Academy. Her approach integrates theory, technique breakdown, proper body mechanics, business strategies skills, client and retail management, and protocols to integrate into practice.

Universal Companies is proud to have a team of experienced spa advisors on staff and welcomes you to consult with our professionals about spa products and supplies, including ingredients, equipment, and retail. Dedicated to the success of spa professionals everywhere, we're grateful to be recognized with the American Spa Magazine Professional's Choice Award, Favorite Distributor of the Year for many consecutive years. (Thank you!)

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