Women with breast cancer who received massage therapy showed a significant increase in both beneficial natural-killer cells and dopamine levels, and a significant decrease in long-term anxiety, as compared to women who received relaxation therapy, according to a recent study.

“Breast Cancer Women Experience Increased Natural Killer Cells Following Massage Therapy” was conducted by staff at the Touch Research Institutes.

Fifty-eight women diagnosed within the last three years with early-stage breast cancer, at least three months post-surgery and finished with radiation and chemotherapy, were randomly assigned to either a massage-therapy group, a relaxation-therapy group or a standard-treatment control group.

Relaxation therapy was used to discover whether massage benefits women with breast cancer simply because it’s relaxing, or if it is the massage itself that produces positive effects.

Women assigned to the massage-therapy group received three 30-minute massages per week for five weeks. Women in the relaxation group self-administered three 30-minute progressive-muscle-relaxation sessions per week for five weeks. Women in the control group received standard breast-cancer treatment.

On the first and last days of the study, the women were evaluated for both immediate and long-term effects of the sessions on depression, anger, anxiety, vigor and pain. The Profile of Mood States, the Symptom Checklist 90 Revised (SCL-90R) Depression Subscale and the State Anxiety Inventory were used to assess these items. Pain was evaluated with the Short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire.

Urine and blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the study to measure dopamine and natural-killer-cell levels. Natural-killer cells are known to be effective against virus-infected cells and various types of tumor cells.
Results of the study showed that both the massage and relaxation groups had lower levels of depression, anxiety and pain immediately after the sessions, as compared to the standard-treatment control group. However, it was only women in the massage group who experienced a long-term reduction in anxiety.

It was also the massage-therapy group alone that showed a significant increase in dopamine and natural-killer-cell levels from the first to last day of the study.

“The pivotal finding in this study was the increase in natural-killer cell numbers for the women with breast cancer who received massage therapy,” state the study’s authors. “Their clinical condition would be expected to improve inasmuch as natural-killer cells are noted to destroy tumor cells.”

Source: The Touch Research Institutes, with support from BIOTONE and the U.S. Department of Defense. Authors: Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D.; Tiffany Field, Ph.D.; Gail Ironson, M.D.; Julia Beutler; Yanexy Vera; Judith Hurley, M.D.; Mary Ann Fletcher, Ph.D.; Saul Schanberg, M.D., Ph.D.; and Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., 2004.

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