pink ribbon

It was healing touch that finally broke through the scarring that held down Elaine Gates-Miliner after her battle with ovarian cancer last year. It was healing touch that helped diminish not only her physical scar, but also her emotional scar, empowering her to retake her body as her own. It was the healing touch of an oncology massage therapist who was dedicated to restoring Gates-Miliner to the woman she was before cancer: one who is self-confident and strong.

“It felt good to be able to be touched again, especially where the incision had been,” Gates-Miliner said. “It was soothing and relaxing, and made me feel more normal again. I was stronger.”

Oncology massage patients across the country share similar positive experiences as Gates-Miliner, thanks to the personal attention of massage therapists like Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) oncology massage therapist Lis Kraycik.

“I like to help the patient realize [his or her] scar is not this thing that needs to be hidden and ignored,” Kraycik said. “Massage helps the patient to accept themselves again.”

A staggering fact about cancer is half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society.


Treatment Effects

Kraycik practices tuina massage, a Chinese medicine technique that uses acupressure points and soft-tissue methods to stimulate the circulation of blood and qi (energy) throughout the body, along with the organs that are “under siege from the chemo,” Kraycik said.

The organ that is often most affected by chemo is the large intestine. Usually cancer patients have decreased digestion; massage is able to help increase the absorption of nutrition coming into the body. Abdominal massage work helps the patient to digest food and aids in the overall flow of the large intestine.

Poor digestion is just one of the side effects of chemo and radiation that oncology massage works to treat. Oncology massage has other therapeutic effects: It helps the patient to relax and even regulates the sleep schedule of someone who is having trouble resting.

“We assist in being able to essentially rebuild their body,” Kraycik said.

Cancer patients are fighting a battle each and every day, and as a result their bodies are exhausted.

“Massage gives patients the energy they need to tackle the day-to-day process of life,” Kraycik said.

She shared a story of one patient who had a large red scar from her rib cage down to her pelvic bone as a result of surgery. After having massage work done, the scar tissue decreased dramatically. Kraycik was also able to help the patient accept and become comfortable in her own body again; the postsurgical massage succeeded in having psychological and aesthetic benefits.


female cancer patient

Massage Styles

There are different styles of oncology massage. Each style has a unique background and utilizes different techniques. Each one can be effective; it’s more a matter of patient preference. Here are a few styles, broken down by Bill Helm, PCOM massage-department chair:

  • Traditional Western style, or “circulatory Swedish” massage. This is one of the most common types of massage in the U.S. today. This technique is mild and uses gentle strokes, circulating the blood and lymph fluids, and helping with stress reduction.
  • Tuina. This Chinese technique is an active, yet mild, technique that works to stimulate circulation of qi and blood. Like all Chinese medicine techniques, there is always a main focus on qi flow throughout a person’s body, releasing any blockage that may hinder the flow. This technique also tonifies, or strengthens, the internal organs, especially the intestines, which are affected most by chemotherapy.
  • Seitai, or Japanese shiatsu massage. This technique activates the flow of qi and lymph fluids throughout the body, specifically to improve the immune function in its fight against cancer.

The American Cancer Society highlights oncology massage as a complementary therapy to standard medical treatment and states massage is “thought almost universally to be a beneficial therapy. It is helpful not only physically but emotionally as well, because it soothes the soul and the mind.”


Benefits of Massage

Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery have varying side effects from person to person. The bottom line is side effects from cancer treatments are inevitable and massage can help fight those side effects, both physically and emotionally.

Here are some of the benefits of oncology massage:

  • Relaxation. Massage helps patients feel calm, relaxed and takes their minds off of the hardships they face day to day. It’s one of the few times when “the patient is the focus, they get one-on-one time with a person paying specific attention to them,making them feel better,” Helm said.
  • Improved digestion and circulation. These two components are negatively affected by chemotherapy and radiation, but massage can help the body absorb nutrition better and improve overall circulation.
  • Reduction of peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is a common neurological complication of cancer. This condition can cause numbness, pain and tingling in certain areas of the body, particularly in a person’s hands and feet. Massage can help counterbalance these negative effects.
  • Emotional regeneration. Massage works to improve a person’s emotional health. “A lot of cancer patients feel irritated and uncomfortable, so any of the massage methods are good for consolidating their emotional state, making them feel more relaxed and calm,” Helm said.
  • Postsurgical rehabilitation. Postsurgical massage works on the specific, scarred areas, working to bring new blood to the area, and promotes new cell growth.

The benefits of oncology massage can continue even after the patient leaves the massage room. Therapists often recommend self-massage techniques patients can perform on themselves at any time for added relief from the side effects they experience from chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Kraycik describes an abdominal self-massage technique that is used to aid in the digestion process. The massage requires rubbing the stomach area in small circles, moving clockwise in a circle, in the direction of the large intestine.

The patient can then massage in small circles moving in the opposite direction, counter-clockwise in a circle, to assist in peristaltic absorption.

Along with self-massage, mild exercise is key for a patient trying to recover from cancer. Exercise activates circulation, keeps muscle strength up and helps with recovery. Some suggested Chinese medicine forms of exercise include qigong, tai chi and restorative yoga. These forms of exercise are gentle and relaxing, while still working the muscles, getting the blood pumping and the person’s energy flowing.

Acupuncture can also assist cancer patients. Acupuncture works well as a complementary addition to massage and can help with controlling pain caused by cancer. It can also help relieve nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, as well as anxiety and insomnia.


CAM therapies

Recommendations for Patients

Patients who are interested in pursuing massage or acupuncture should contact either a holistic clinic or their oncologist, according to Helm. Also, it’s more common to find integrated medical clinics associated with hospitals; these are good to contact to find an oncology massage therapist.

The American Hospital Association recently reported 42 percent of responding hospitals offer one or more complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, up from 37 percent in 2007 and 26 percent in 2005. This shows the positive trend is steady and CAM is growing in popularity and acceptance.

Hospitals are currently integrating massage therapists into teams of doctors and health professionals. Many therapists are receiving the training they need to be able to see patients recovering from cancer or in treatment. In hospice settings, holistic health care practitioners are providing comfort to terminally ill patients and their families. Researchers are beginning to explore the relationship between massage and cancer patients.

One of the hurdles for massage therapists is convincing doctors of the benefits of massage, exercise and CAM therapies for cancer patients. Doctors and other health care professionals must be educated about the benefits of massage for cancer patients, just as massage therapists must be educated about how to work with patients and doctors.

“Hospitals have long known what they do to treat and heal involves more than just medications and procedures,” said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety at the American Hospital Association. “It is about using all of the art and science of medicine to restore the patient as fully as possible.”

Besides seeking out a hospital that incorporates integrative medicine, the American Massage Therapy Association offers a directory on its website of qualified oncology massage therapists that can be searched based on geographical area.


Taking Charge

A former lung cancer patient, Deanna Zieber, talks about how she spent hundreds of dollars on pain medications that did nothing for her before she decided to try CAM. In the end, the only treatment that gave her any relief was holistic medicine, specifically tuina massage and acupuncture.

“People need to take charge of their own health care,” Zieber said. “There comes a certain point when doctors can only treat the smoke [but] not the fire. Asian massage treats the fire as well, which is why it’s so effective, and I will continue going to massage and acupuncture for the rest of my life.”

Many massage therapists, including Kraycik and Helm, have developed connections with their patients because of their own personal experiences that brought them to oncology massage.

Kraycik’s experience involved her grandfather being diagnosed with intestinal cancer when she was in massage school. She was able to use massage to help him through his hard time and says, “You can find a million and one people with back pain, but it’s so rewarding to be of service to someone going through something like cancer.”

Zieber has some closing advice: “People shouldn’t wait until they’re not feeling well to go get a massage,” she said. “Massage should be part of our wellness plan.

“A lot of illnesses stem from stress, and massage therapists are the ones you want to go to to alleviate that stress, so we can maintain our own wellness.”


About the Author

Deborah Reuss, H.H.P., N.C.B.T.M.B., is dean of the department of Asian Holistic Health and Massage at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, California. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in holistic nutrition from Clayton College, has more than 19 years of experience in massage therapy, and is in practice as a holistic health practitioner.