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Massage for Cancer Patients: Indicated or Contraindicated?

November 25, 2015

By William C. Handley Jr., LMT, Oncology Massage Therapist

Years of constant research have developed numerous new treatments to eradicate cancer or at least prolong the quality of life of a person living with cancer. As a cancer survivor, I can give firsthand testimony that most cancer patients feel abandoned in the time they need the most support.

"You have cancer" will be some of the scariest words you will ever hear in your life!

Most of the family members and loved ones of a person diagnosed with cancer will tell that person they will be with them and support them all the way through their battle with the disease. I'm sure, without a doubt, that their intentions are true. But in the eyes of the person living with the cancer, the support usually comes from a distance. Due to fallacies and myths, most people that are intending to support a person living with cancer actually will distance themselves from the person fighting the disease. These fallacies, myths, and lack of education and facts can lead the supporters to think they can hurt a person battling cancer by touching them, hugging them, or even that they can catch the cancer by being in contact with them. This simple distance is more noticeable to the person living with cancer because they need the close support and touch of their loved ones. When you have a life-threatening disease, a touch or hug develops a lot more meaning than just contact.

Massage therapy is one of the most relaxing forms of touch available. Massage therapy also has many health benefits, but there have been concerns that massage therapy actually can cause the cancer to spread. Most massage therapy schools taught that cancer was a contraindication for massage. The two main concerns of how massage therapy could spread cancer involved its effects on circulation and the cancer tumors. Research continues to dispute the original concerns that massage therapy can spread cancer. The support to dispute this myth grows each year through credible experts and numerous studies.

Oncology massage therapy actually is a combination of many styles of massage incorporated into one session. The differences in the styles and techniques used with cancer patients are noticeable, both visually and physically. Oncology massage is a non-invasive technique, specifically adapted for individuals of all ages and types of cancer. Cancer patients should only receive massage therapy from a therapist educated in oncology massage. A therapist uneducated in the adaptations of these styles and proper techniques actually can cause the cancer patient to develop different conditions and even cause the death of the patient. There are contraindications and precautions for a cancer patient to receive massage therapy. This list has grown over the years to become more complete and ensure that those who are educated in oncology massage also are educated in what they should not do and what they should be cautious of.

Acceptance of massage therapy for cancer patients from medical professionals has been a continuing educational process for the medical institutions, physicians and the oncology massage therapists. The medical institutions require credentials and protocols for treatment and procedure manuals. This means a massage therapist must be able to produce documentation and certification that he or she has had education in massage for cancer patients, in addition to the standard education in massage therapy. The therapist also must have detailed protocols for treatment that give an outline of the therapy plans for each stage of cancer, such as: pre- and postsurgical protocols, chemotherapy and radiation protocols, lymphedema protocols and scar tissue protocols. The therapist also must provide a correctly formatted procedure manual under the requirements of a joint commission.

The physicians must be educated in the benefits of oncology massage and how to properly refer patients with a correct prescription and diagnosis. This is another educational responsibility of the oncology massage therapist - to meet with these physicians and provide them with hard, undeniable evidence of medical studies. The best evidence has been patient testimony after a physician sends their first referral.

The oncology massage therapist must obtain additional education and training through qualified instructors. There are now several classes available in this modality of massage therapy. Cheryl Chapman and Tracy Walton offer very informative continuing education classes. Gayle MacDonald recently joined with Dr. Sandy Canzone and developed a 300-hour certification course in oncology massage. Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center also offers a continuing educational course in oncology massage therapy. Courses such as these are vital and should eventually be mandatory for a massage therapist to be able to provide massage therapy for those living with or surviving cancer. Mandatory requirements will help give a more credible recognition and acceptance of this therapy.

Standard massage therapy performed by a generally licensed massage therapist and without additional specialized education in cancer should be considered a contraindication for cancer patients. However, oncology massage therapy provided by a properly educated oncology massage therapist is a definite indication for those living with or surviving the disease.

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