More than likely, you know someone who has or has had cancer. It is the leading cause of death in individuals 35-64 years of age and the second leading cause of death in individuals 65 and older (the first being heart disease in this age category). The American Cancer Society recommends massage therapy to bring comfort and to improve the quality of life for cancer patients, although not to specifically treat cancer.

In the recent past, cancer was viewed as a contraindication for massage. This incorrect perception prevented people living with cancer from receiving treatments. The prevailing thought was that massage therapy increased the circulation of blood and lymph. Since most malignancies spread via these routes, it must increase the chance of spreading the cancer throughout the client’s body. No medical evidence supports this claim.

Currently, new and accurate information is available for massage therapists who want to work with cancer patients. Since cancer and cancer treatments affect the entire body, leaving the person in a fragile condition, it is vital for the massage therapist to be informed.

Here are a few important guidelines to help massage therapist when working with cancer patients.

• Obtain medical clearance for massage from the client’s healthcare provider.

• Use a side lying position and/or special propping to increase client comfort if he or she is unable to lay prone due to central lines on the upper chest wall, radiation burns, or surgical wounds.

• Avoid massage over or near IV’s, catheters, surgical wounds over known cancer sites, radiation burns, or known tumors sites.

• Adjust the treatment to the client’s stamina. Suggest that the client receive massage on high-energy days and times. Massage received on low energy days and times may actually feel depleting to the client.

• Massage may be contraindicated if the client’s has spread to the bones. If medical clearance has been obtained, pressure, traction, and joint mobilizations may be contraindicated or only cautiously used.

• If the client is experiencing nausea due to cancer treatments, avoid pressure and speed that rocks the client. This includes joint mobilizations, stretches, and jostling.

Susan Salvo is an instructor and the director of the LA Institute of Massage Therapy. She the author of Massage Therapy: Principles and Practice, and Mosby’s Guide to Pathology for the Massage Therapist, both published by Elsevier. She has contributed a chapter “Geriatric Massage” for Modalities for Massage and Bodywork published by Elsevier. For the text Teaching Massage, produced by the Associated Bodywork Massage Professionals, she contributed the chapter entitled “Teaching Massage to Students with Special Needs” published by Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins. Salvo co-authored a chapter entitled “The Atlas of Massage” for Muscle and Bone Palpation Manual with Trigger Points, Referral Patterns, and Stretching published by Elsevier. Ms Salvo is one of the featured experts interviewed in the documentary film, History of Massage Therapy in the United States released in 2007.

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