A series of four massages, provided weekly to children with cancer, as well as their parents, successfully reduced anxiety in both groups, according to recent research.

“Massage Therapy for Children with Cancer” involved 17 child-parent pairs who were selected from two in-patient oncology units at a children’s hospital in Minnesota. The children ranged in age from 1 to 18, with varying types of cancer, and only one parent per child participated in the study. Of the parents who participated, 96 percent were mothers.

The children and their parents were randomly assigned to either the massage-therapy or quiet-time group. Following four weekly sessions of either massage or quiet time, the pairs then switched groups at the same point in their next chemotherapy cycle, so that all child-parent pairs received both massage and quiet time.


During the massage intervention, parents received massage first, in the same room as the child, and remained in the room during their child’s massage as well. Parent massage lasted an average of 17 minutes. The massage therapist started with the shoulders, worked down the back, massaged the arms and hands, and finished with the neck and head.

Each child’s massage session lasted roughly 30 minutes and included the back, legs, arms, stomach, chest and face. The massage therapist gave each child the choice of where to start on the body and whether to keep clothes on or take them off.

During quiet time, which usually lasted about a half-hour, parent-child pairs would be together in a private room, where age-appropriate toys were provided and children and parents could read, rest, talk quietly or watch a video.

Outcome measures among the children included changes in relaxation, as measured by heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and salivary cortisol level. Changes in symptoms, including pain, nausea, anxiety and fatigue, also served as outcome measures. Among parents, anxiety and fatigue were evaluated. These measures were assessed just before and 15 to 20 minutes after each session of massage or quiet time.

Results of the research revealed that massage was more effective than quiet time at reducing heart rate in children with cancer, and it also decreased anxiety in those children younger than 14. Massage significantly reduced parent anxiety as well.

“This study supported the feasibility and acceptability of therapist-provided massage in children with cancer and their parents and provided preliminary evidence for reduction of anxiety and increased relaxation,” said the study’s authors.

Authors: Janice Post-White, Maura Fitzgerald, Kay Savik, Mary C. Hooke, Anne B. Hannahan and Susan F. Sencer.

Sources: University of Minnesota, Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota. Originally published in Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing (2008) 26: 16-28.