A massage therapist with foundational oncology massage training of at least 24 hours can work safely with people who have been affected by cancer.

Cancer and cancer treatment increase the inflammatory response in the body.

For this reason alone, manual lymphatic drainage is a useful tool for massage therapists who work with this population. A massage therapist with foundational oncology massage training of at least 24 hours can work safely with people who have been affected by cancer.

However, foundational oncology massage training does not provide a therapist with the skillset to address such conditions as scarring and lymphedema that may arise during and after cancer treatment.

Safe is great, but more advanced training expands a therapist’s clinical reasoning and skills, allowing them to create a more individually tailored and ultimately more effective treatment plan for the client.

Working Cancer Treatments

When a person is affected by cancer and cancer treatment, there is good chance they will experience swelling and pain due to surgery, lymph node removal or radiation. They could also experience anxiety.

And then there’s lymphedema. It’s important to remember that the removal or radiation of even a single lymph node puts a person at a lifetime risk for lymphedema.

While not all oncology massage therapists may be interested in being certified lymphatic therapists, manual lymphatic drainage training is invaluable for a deeper level of understanding and treatment of a person with a history of cancer.

We like to say it’s a great tool to have in your toolbox, even if you don’t plan to use it every day.

Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a gentle, repetitive and noninvasive skin technique, developed in France by husband-and-wife team Emil and Estrid Vodder.

While the original technique is still taught by the Dr. Vodder School™ International, there a great many other schools and offshoots throughout the world, such as Foldi, Klose and Norton. A good reference for seeking programs is lymphnet.org.

While a minimum 45-hour, including supervised hands on practice, MLD training is good for medically uncomplicated issues or lymphedema, a certified lymphatic therapist with CDT training is needed for more complex clients.

Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is a four-part therapy that includes MLD, compression bandaging, skin care and exercises.

CDT programs include basic MLD with roughly 100 additional hours of theory and practical instruction.

The Effects of MLD

  1. Decongestive effect: MLD is used to reduce any swelling in the body (with the exception of cardiac and renal edema). MLD provides a pumping effect in the tissue transporting the “waste” (proteins, bacteria, debris from wounds, etc.) carried in the lymph from the tissues back into the circulatory system. It may reduce post-surgical swelling, decrease subacute inflammation, and support the Lymphatic System in ways that could help prevent the development of Lymphedema.
  2. Sympatholytic effect: This is a fancy word for super relaxing. Rhythmic, repetitive, slow hand movements create a sedation of the nervous system. Cancer and cancer treatment are hard on the body. By invoking a parasympathetic nervous response, MLD may reduce the effects of the stress and anxiety a person is experiencing and help the body create a more favorable environment for the work of healing.
  3. Analgesic effect: Like almost any bodywork, MLD provides pain relief via gate control theory. Also, it appears that MLD facilitates more efficient movement of pain mediators into the lymphatic system helping decrease pain in the tissues.
  4. Immunological effect: It is believed by many practitioners that MLD helps accelerate the body’s natural immunization processes, however, this has yet to be observed or proven in an empirical way, so it remains solidly in the realm of theory.

Applications & Considerations

It may be obvious after reading the list above that Manual Lymphatic Draining can be used to address many of the effects of cancer and cancer treatment, but it’s also important to remember that an oncology massage client is not just dealing with cancer.

They may have other issues like scarring, insomnia, venous insufficiency, sports injuries, autoimmune conditions, complex regional pain syndrome, and allergies or sinusitis. The treatment of these can be more effective with the inclusion of MLD, again, allowing for a more robust treatment plan designed for the whole person.

Let’s Be Realistic

So, you think that this great new course will bring in more clients and allow you to fix more people. Yes … and an emphatic no.

Each new modality allows us to treat our clients in new and different ways, but no technique is a magic carriage, delivering us to a place where we can finally fix the issues that our clients have.

We don’t fix anything.

While it is true that we become more skillful as we continue to educate ourselves, we need to avoid imagining that there is a goal to achieve.

Healing our clients isn’t something that any of us can do. We can be a piece of the healing puzzle.

We can support the body’s work, but healing is an individual and innate process which is, to say the very least, complicated and unique.

Taking an oncology massage or MLD course is essential, not because they provide the perfect techniques to fix clients but because they supply a practitioner with more tools to stimulate and fine-tune critical thinking.

Working with people who have been affected by cancer present massage therapists with ongoing changes and challenges. MLD training allows us to address some of the issues that massage alone does not.

About the Authors

Kerry Jordan, LMT, is an instructor and operations manager for Healwell. She is a fervent lover and teacher of physiology and pathology. Jordan provides massage and participates in research at Washington, D.C.-area hospitals and hospice facilities. She specializes in working with people who are affected by serious illness and those in the midst of gender transition.

Julie Ackerman, LMT’s private practice focuses on people affected by cancer, lymphatic issues and chronic pain. She has provided massage in several hospitals, including Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Ackerman serves as massage advisor for Unite For HER, and is an active member of the Society for Oncology Massage and an instructor with Healwell.

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