Cancer Care: Medical Massage for the Oncology Client
By Lori Vargas and Christine Clinton
Is it time for you to expand your knowledge and enhance your massage skills? The gift of touch for clients living with cancer or with a history of cancer has been clinically shown to improve their quality of life. As professional massage therapists, we owe it to our clients with compromised health to be inclusive and therefore prepared for any client who requests a massage, regardless of their health status.
Oncology massage is the use of therapeutic touch to ease the body slowly and gently into a state of relaxation by sedating the central nervous system. The most common adaptations for oncology massage include the position of the client, the pressure used and the direction of the strokes.
Additionally, the duration of the massage session may change depending on where the treatment is taking place, such as in a hospital setting, in a spa or wellness center, or in the client’s own home. Oncology massage supports immune function and mental health by reducing anxiety or depression, increasing range of motion and improving the quality of sleep.
For us, the word transformative needs to be the center of oncology massage, because transformative is defined as causing a marked change in someone or something. This transformation is experienced by the therapist as well as the client.
Therapist Point of View
The motivations that tend to encourage therapists to learn a new skill, fill a niche and broaden their service menu to grow business are often associated with growing revenue—but with cancer care, we often see a particular interest because of a personal experience with cancer. The person with cancer may be one of our parents, a sibling, a coworker, a friend or a neighbor. We think it is safe to say that everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer. We also understand that becoming certified in a cancer program is not for every therapist. This work can be very emotional and requires patience and empathy in addition to learning specific techniques or adaptations for every client.
Occasionally, for example, we may need to change the position of the client from prone to side-lying or supine based on their presentation. We may reduce the time of the session to meet the needs of our guests with compromised health.
The timing of massage treatments during cancer treatments is important for several reasons. The client going through cancer treatment is often fatigued, so when they find comfort in the power of therapeutic touch, in a quiet, relaxing space with someone who is trained to listen to them and their medical challenges, they often fall into a deep sleep. This is usually rewarding for a therapist, but if you work in a busy spa it is important to allow enough time for the client to wake up, get up and dressed, and meet you after the session for some homecare advice.
One out of every two men and one of every three women will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. According to the American Cancer Society, every 15 seconds an American is diagnosed with cancer. The demand for oncology massage continues to grow, and as more people survive cancer, there is an expectation that receiving a massage will help address some of the long-term side effects of treatment.
Over the years, the attitude toward oncology massage has evolved. There used to be, for example, unfounded beliefs that massage could spread cancer or promote metastasis. We now know that this is not the case. Massage has been shown to increase leukocytes, which are an essential part of the immune system. (The BBC in the United Kingdom carried out a small study with a client having blood drawn before a massage and again 60 minutes after the massage. There was an increase of 30% in immune activity.)
Providing safe and effective massage to people living with cancer is often transformative and profound. It is essential to take the time to conduct a thorough consultation to understand the unique needs of each client and allow them to be heard during this challenging time. Effective oncology massage training allows the therapist to take that information and customize a treatment that integrates slow, gentle holds, long effleurage strokes, joint mobility techniques, scar tissue release therapy, rhythmic lymphatic pumping, and treatment to the hands and feet. The result provides comfort and a sense of calm that supports healing and aids the clients in their recovery.
An oncology massage specialization offers inclusivity for all clients regardless of where they are on their cancer journey. Earning an oncology massage specialization also recognizes the evolving and growing interest in complementary therapies and wellness in general. Complementary therapies offer a different approach compared to conventional or mainstream medicine.
Since the early 2000s, there have been numerous studies designed and undertaken to evaluate oncology massage. The findings of these studies have influenced the position now taken by many oncologists at some of the best hospitals in the world, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, MD Anderson, The Mayo Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic and Penn Medicine. These facilities have integrated oncology spa services in their programs, providing care across the U.S., as well as employment opportunities for certified oncology massage therapists. The importance of quality of life for people living with cancer is essential.
Due to the efficacy of the cancer treatments now available, the number of people living with cancer continues to increase every year. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are 18.1 million cancer survivors in the U.S. as of January 2022. These survivors are living with the short-term and long-term side effects of cancer treatments and definitely will benefit from oncology massage. Today, oncologists and other health professionals encourage cancer patients to engage in wellness activities such as walking, gentle exercise, massage, relaxation, meditation, and visualization.
Client Point of View
The majority of people diagnosed with cancer are not prepared for the many side effects that often accompany cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Individuals go through a life-changing experience that begins with a diagnosis that impacts them both physically and emotionally: the fear of uncertainty, the shift in focus, the side effects of treatments, the anxiety associated with the risk of recurrence, and the overall changes in one’s body.
The opportunity for a skilled oncology massage therapist to become part of the circle of support, to offer comfort touch and compassionate listening, is supportive of treatment. Our clients tell us time and time again how they wished they had known that their pain could be reduced or their range of movement increased by oncology massage. Some insurance plans cover the cost of these therapeutic sessions.
Our clients see tremendous results when we can schedule massage around their chemotherapy or immunotherapy cycles. A cycle is the time between one round of treatment and the start of the next. This happens in phases. In chemotherapy, the phases are described as follows:
• Resting Phase (GO) nothing is happening
- • G1 Phase (Gap 1, a growth phase)
- • S Phase (synthesis, the copying of DNA happens)
- • G2 Phase (Gap 2, one more growth phase)
- • M Phase (Mitosis, one cell splits into two cells)
Cancer cells by definition are cells that are growing out of control. Any cancer treatment is aimed at slowing that process down or stopping it completely. If we can support our clients’ mental health and physical well-being while they go through treatment, we can improve their outcomes.
Empowering our clients to gain their voice and confidently influence their treatment plan by integrating massage and touch therapy supports the client as they begin their transformation. Not every client will have the same experience with their cancer treatment, but to know that you can make a difference and enhance the quality of life of every client through the gift of touch is profound. To some massage therapists, it is a calling. To our clients, it is a blessing.
To learn how to adjust massages for clients with active cancer or with a history of cancer, enroll in Clinton Cancer Care Massage Therapy: Level 1. Available on the Universal Companies Learning Network, this online course allows you to learn at your own pace while earning 20 CEUs.
This article ran in the November 2022 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.
About the Authors
Christine Clinton is the founder of Christine Clinton Cancer Care, an education company specializing in teaching therapists how to work with clients living safely and effectively with cancer. She has over 30 years of experience in the spa and wellness sector and is certified in massage, skin care, reflexology, aromatherapy, lymphatic drainage, energy medicine and mind-body medicine.
Lori Vargas, founder of 360 Wellness Education, has over 20 years in the spa industry as a founder of multiple spas, a massage school, and as a spa consultant. She also has 14 years of experience guiding Fortune 500 Companies with corporate strategies and business development. Lori holds a CPA and MBA from the University of Chicago.
To complement her online 360 Wellness Education courses, Lori has created an educational community focused on connections and growth through 360 Wellness Education CORE Membership. This membership provides easy access to affordable on-demand advanced education, live webinars (sip & learn style), Facebook private group, newsletters, and live events. Follow on Instagram at @360WellnessEducation .
In addition to CORE Membership and her other online courses, Lori offers 360 Business Workshops. This live webinar series focuses on business start-up and development, sharing valuable insight, advice, and templates to jumpstart business growth and maximize success.