People in palliative care who receive massage, aromatherapy or reflexology describe the experience as a positive one with beneficial effects on their overall sense of well-being, according to a recent systematic review and thematic synthesis.

Study Design

The research, “Aromatherapy, massage and reflexology: A systematic review and thematic synthesis of the perspectives from people with palliative care needs,” focused on five qualitative studies of complementary therapy for people with advanced cancer. The five studies involved a total of 83 subjects.

Massage therapy was the form of complementary care used in three of the selected studies. A fourth study employed aromatherapy, and the final study involved on reflexology. The complementary therapy was provided in settings such as nursing homes, hospices, participants’ homes or an oncology ward.


The main outcome measure in these studies was the experience of receiving complementary therapy as a person with an advanced illness. Data was gathered via one-on-one interviews with the subjects in three of the studies, a focus group in the fourth study and an open-ended questionnaire in the fifth.

In terms of their experience during a session of complementary care, subjects expressed feelings of increased well-being, escapism and living in the moment. Subjects reported these beneficial feelings often lasted after the session ended, and they looked forward to their next appointment for complementary care.

According to the study participants, their interaction with the practitioner played a significant role in the positive experience during and after each session.

“A large part of the benefit participants got from the therapist was the opportunity to talk to them,” state the authors of the review. “Participants valued discussing their concerns beyond their disease and to someone outside of their family. This talking reduced tension.”

As far as the delivery of complementary therapy to people with palliative care needs, subjects expressed the desire for longer and more frequent sessions, as well as easier access to these services. The ability to exert a level of control over their complementary care, as opposed to their conventional cancer treatments, emerged as a key benefit.

Supportive Relationship

“Complementary therapy had a perceived impact on people’s well-being, by allowing them a time to get respite and escape from their disease and associated worries,” concluded the authors of the review.

“Building a supportive relationship with the therapist was an integral part of the complementary therapy experience and should be driven to allow people in palliative care to be in control of their treatment,” they added.

Authors: Megan Armstrong, Kate Flemming, Nuriye Kupeli, Patrick Stone, Susie Wilkinson and Bridget Candy. Sources: Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department, Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London, United Kingdom; Department of Health Sciences, University of York, York, United Kingdom; Palliative Care Institute, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom. Originally published online in May 2019 in Palliative Medicine.