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Can You Get a Massage During Chemo? What to Know and How to Find a Provider

Living Well

January 19, 2024

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Photography by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Photography by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

by Beth Ann Mayer

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Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI

•••••

•••••

by Beth Ann Mayer

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI

•••••

•••••

Massage during chemotherapy is generally safe and may even be beneficial. However, you’ll want to avoid massage if you have low blood platelet count, clotting, hemorrhage, or some skin sensitivities.

Chemotherapy can be life-saving as well as physically and emotionally draining.

Between reduced immunity, fatigue, and possible appetite changes, it may seem like the options to find relief are limited.

One gentle option to find a little bit of relaxation is to get a massage. Here’s what you need to know about doing so safely.

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Can you get a massage during chemotherapy?

If you’re undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, it’s generally safe to get a massage.

“Yes, people undergoing chemotherapy can get a massage, though the massage therapist may have to modify some techniques,” says Rebecca Crane-Okada. Crane-Okada is an advanced oncology-certified nurse and the director of the Cancer Navigation & Willow Sage Wellness Programs at the Margie Petersen Breast Center.

She notes there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering a massage during treatment, as well as certain times when you should avoid massage altogether.

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Benefits of massage during chemotherapy

Maria “Bambi” Mathay is the lead oncology massage therapist with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living.

Mathay notes that massage can help ease the physical and emotional impacts of chemotherapy if administered professionally. This involves working with your care providers to determine if and when it’s safe to receive a massage.

“Complementary medicine can be beneficial in many conditions and ailments, and cancer is no exception — this includes massage therapy,” says Jamie Bacharach, a licensed Shiatsu Massage Therapist and medical acupuncturist at Acupuncture Jerusalem. Bacharach works extensively with people undergoing cancer treatment.

Physical and mental benefits can include relief from common symptoms of chemotherapy treatment, like:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • GI upset
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • neuropathy, or nerve damage
  • generalized pain

Mathay says people come to her feeling unwell, sore, and tired, but unable to sleep because of the pain.

“After the massage, they find some relief from these symptoms, and they might sleep like a baby that night,” Mathay says.

What the research says

Research cited in a 2020 study indicated that massage therapy could help with mood and other cancer-related side effects like depression, anxiety, pain, and fatigue.

A small 2022 randomized pilot study of 71 people undergoing chemotherapy suggested that people receiving oncology massage 3 times per week for 4 weeks had more symptom relief than those who went twice weekly for 6 weeks.

A 2023 meta-analysis suggested that massage therapy could be an effective complementary therapy for people with hematological malignancies, breast cancer, and digestive system cancers. Research indicated that people receiving chemotherapy could benefit from foot reflexology.

When to skip a massage during chemotherapy

Always talk with a healthcare professional to see if massage during treatment is the right option for you. Your doctor may suggest avoiding massage if you’re experiencing particular symptoms.

These include:

Crane-Okada shares that a low blood platelet count is one reason to avoid massage if you’re receiving chemotherapy because you’ll be more prone to bruising, even with a light touch.

Mathay says hemorrhage and blood clotting risk is another concern.

“In our institution, our patients can receive massage for as long as their platelets are at least 25,000 per microliter of blood.” Mathay says. “This was a number that a hematologist informed us was a safe cut-off for a person to receive a session.”

Crane-Okada adds that you may be advised against a massage if you’re experiencing skin changes that increase sensitivity to touch or skin care products like lotion.

Possible massage side effects

Other considerations include the potential for developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT) as a side effect of massage.

“The adjustment for that would be lighter pressure massage up to 6 months after chemotherapy treatment is done,” says Mathay.

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How to find a massage therapist when you’re undergoing chemotherapy

It’s best to go to a professional with experience working with people receiving chemotherapy.

“There are special cancer massage therapists who are experts in oncology-related massage techniques,” Bacharach says. “They will likely be able to assess and tailor their treatment to your condition and stage.”

Mathay says resources are available to help you find the correct professional. These include:

“Most oncology hospitals now have Integrative Medicine centers that employ oncology massage therapists,” Mathay adds.

The Society for Oncology Massage and the American Massage Therapy Association have directories that allow you to search for therapists in your area.

Your massage therapist, your choice

Who you choose is important, even when using directories.

“Look for someone who has at least more than 5 years of training and talk with them to make sure they’re comfortable working with folks receiving chemotherapy,” Mathay says. “If you decide to go to spas, ask if they have someone trained in oncology or medical conditions.”

This can help ensure a safe and comfortable experience.

Tips for getting the most out of your massage

To get the most from your massage, follow the tips below.

Talk with your doctor

Before clicking “book,” discuss massage therapy with your healthcare team. Massages are generally safe, but it’s important to make sure they’re safe for you personally.

“Discussing massage with the treatment team in relation to anticipated side effects will help guide scheduling,” says Crane-Okada.

The best time to schedule

While this will vary from person to person, Mathay has noticed some trends.

“I find that people do best when they receive massage before their chemotherapy treatment or once the worst of the chemotherapy side effects are over, so maybe a week before or a week to 2 weeks after,” Mathay says. “Then, they can really enjoy the session.”

Make the therapist aware of sensitivities

Chemotherapy may cause pain or sensitivities, including on the skin. Letting your massage therapist know about them ahead of time can help the provider customize their approach.

You may want to ask whether the massage therapist uses:

  • essential oils
  • scented candles, massage oils, or lotions
  • oils or lotions that aren’t formulated for sensitive skin

Most practitioners are happy to adjust these according to your preferences. You may also want to bring your own preferred oil or lotion.

Pressure is relative

Mathay and her colleagues don’t use terms like “deep work.”

“We don’t define our work based on pressure but based on what is safe, what feels good, and what may be helpful for you during this time of your treatment,” she says.

It’s important that your practitioner works with you to support what you need.

Reflect post-massage

Bacharach suggests tuning into your body after your session and using that feedback to inform future sessions.

“Watch for how your body responds, and adjust your sessions accordingly,” she says. “Just because a certain technique works for person A doesn’t mean it will work for you.”

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Takeaway

Massages are generally safe during chemotherapy and may help relieve stress, pain, and sleep issues.

That said, issues like low blood pallet count may make massages unsafe — always consult with a doctor first.

Be sure to tell your massage therapist about any pain or sensitivities you’re feeling, and reflect on how you feel post-massage. This information can help you have an even more effective follow-up session.

Medically reviewed on January 19, 2024

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About the author

Beth Ann Mayer

Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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