Massage therapy is one of the fastest-growing complementary therapies for Fatigue and Cancer. A recently completed study in breast cancer survivors with CRF found that Swedish Massage Therapy (SMT) caused a significant reduction in fatigue and improvement in the quality of life.
Fatigue and Cancer can be a common side effect of almost any type of cancer treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and can occur weeks or months after treatment ends. Cancer itself can also cause fatigue.
But there are several strategies you can use to manage Fatigue and Cancer.
1. Get treated for medical conditions or causes that make fatigue worse. Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing fatigue. You should be screened for:
- Pain or its treatment, especially narcotic pain medication
- Emotional distress, such as anxiety or depression
- Poor nutrition or electrolyte imbalances, such as abnormal levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium
- Anemia, an abnormally low level of red blood cells
- Sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
- Medication side effects
- Other medical conditions, such as heart, lung, or hormone problems
2. Get moving. Whether it’s walking, swimming, or going to the gym, move your body every day, if you can. Physical activity is one of the best ways to counteract cancer-related fatigue. Talk with your doctor about how to start exercising safely.
3. Take time to relax. Schedule some rest in your day so that you conserve energy for when you need it. Limit naps to less than 1 hour so that you can still sleep at night.
4. Eat well. Keeping up with your nutrition is important on many levels. Even if you can’t eat a lot right now, grazing on healthy snacks throughout the day can help give you needed nutrients and energy. You may also want to talk with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) about how to eat well.
5. Practice good sleep habits. Take simple steps to get a restful night’s sleep, such as turning off the TV or computer at least an hour before bedtime and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon or later. Remember to keep your naps to less than 1 hour.
6. Engage in mind-body strategies. Some people find that mindfulness-based approaches or activities, such as yoga or meditation, help. There’s also evidence that acupuncture can help with fatigue.
7. Consider therapy and counseling. A therapist or counselor experienced with working with people with cancer can provide you with coping strategies or other psychosocial interventions that may help with fatigue.
8. Get a massage. There’s increasing evidence that massage therapy may help with cancer-related fatigue. Research has shown that massage can improve the quality of life in people with cancer and may improve sleep.
Many cancer centers are now offering massage therapy as a complementary treatment for cancer. In this sense, massage is not used as a treatment for cancer, per se—such as chemotherapy or surgery would be—but as a method of helping with the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment. The research is young, but massage therapy may help with pain, cancer-related fatigue, anxiety, and quality of life, and meets evidence-based guidelines for aiding in the relief of depression and mood disorders in women with breast cancer. Massage may also play a role in the prevention of neuropathic pain related to chemotherapy drugs such as Taxol.
There are potential risks, such as infection, bruising, and skin breakdown, as well as reasons it should not be performed, such as if blood clots are present, or if your platelet count is very low. Let’s take a look at how massage may benefit people with cancer, and how to find an oncology massage therapist.
The term “integrative treatment” refers to the practice of combining traditional cancer treatments to address the tumor with “alternative” treatments to ease symptoms, and is an approach many cancer centers are now adopting.
Massage Therapy Basics
Massage is defined as the rubbing of skin and muscles in the body to give someone a sense of well-being. Many of us are familiar with traditional back rubs, and massage therapy isn’t that much different—in the sense that it simply feels good to many people. Yet there are many different techniques and forms of massage therapy.
The best type of massage and potential benefits can vary by technique. Common forms include:
- Swedish massage
- Aromatherapy massage
- Classical massage
- Myofascial massage
- Anma therapy (Japanese massage therapy)
- Deep tissue massage: This type of massage is not usually used during active cancer treatment, but may be used to help with chronic pain and limited motion due to scar tissue after treatment is done.
Uses of Different Techniques
The best type of massage can vary depending on your symptoms and how your cancer and cancer treatments have affected your body. Gentle massage is tolerated by most people with cancer, and is sufficient to release “endorphins,” the “feel good” chemicals released by the brain that can reduce pain. For those who have muscle tightness and stiffness, stronger methods of massage, such as Swedish massage, may be needed.
Massage therapy may have general benefits on well-being as well as specific benefits for common symptoms related to cancer or cancer treatments.
General Health Benefits
Researchers believe massage may be helpful for both its physical and psychological benefits.1
Physically, massage may:
- Decrease inflammation and swelling
- Improve circulation
- Help sore muscles
- Lower the level of stress hormones in your blood
Emotionally, massage may help people relax, provide a distracting experience that takes the mind off of pain and fear, and reduce anxiety and sometimes, depression.
Benefits for People With Cancer
Intuitively, it seems that massage should benefit those living with cancer. Unlike the often intense (and sometimes cold) nature of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, massage can lead to a sense of calm and serenity. In addition, since much of cancer treatment is aimed at treating a tumor, massage can help people feel pampered as the therapy involves a therapist being devoted to your personal and non-clinical well-being.2
Some studies evaluating the potential benefits of massage therapy in oncology have focused on specific treatments. For example, a 2016 study looked at the benefits of massage in people going through chemotherapy, finding that it led to improvements in pain, fatigue, nausea, and anxiety.1
Other studies have looked at the benefits of massage for specific symptoms related to cancer.
A few studies have suggested that massage therapy, when combined with other treatments, may reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. A 2015 study looking at combining conventional and alternative therapies for cancer found that the combination of dexamethasone, massage therapy, and ginger for chemotherapy-induced nausea worked better than some other combinations of conventional and alternative treatments.3
It’s important to note that when massage therapy is used to help with nausea, it does not mean foregoing medications that are used to both prevent and treat nausea, only that massage may be a useful adjunct to more traditional therapies. This is true when it comes to many cancer-related symptoms, in which a combination of therapies is usually most effective.
Anxiety and Stress
Several studies have found that massage therapy can reduce anxiety and stress for people living with cancer. On a more objective level, massage also appears to lower cortisol levels, with this reduction in stress hormones possibly having other physical benefits as well. Decreased stress and anxiety has been noted in a number of different studies.1
Of all of the symptoms that massage may help with, depression and mood disorders have the strongest evidence. Depression and mood disorders are not only common in women with breast cancer, but can be challenging to treat as many antidepressant drugs reduce the effectiveness of some breast cancer medications (such as Tamoxifen). In addition, a few studies have found that depression is associated with lower survival rates in women with breast cancer.
Depression and lung cancer can go hand in hand, and recent research suggests that inflammation may be a cause of depression in this setting.
Fatigue and Cancer
Massage has been found to reduce cancer fatigue in some people. While not a life-threatening symptom, fatigue is one of the more annoying and frustrating symptoms for people with cancer and often persists for years after treatment has been completed in those with early-stage disease.
A 2018 study published in the journal Cancer found that Swedish massage resulted in significant improvement in cancer-related fatigue for people with stage 0 to stage III breast cancer.4
Pain Control -Fatigue and Cancer
As with nausea and vomiting, massage therapy should not be used instead of conventional treatments for pain, but may help to reduce pain or reduce the amount of pain medication people may need. It may be especially helpful with pain due to surgery. The mechanism isn’t well understood, but massage has been found to increase the release of endorphins, and increased levels of endorphins, in turn, are associated with a reduction in pain.
A 2018 study found that massage is helpful in providing immediate help for pain, though it’s not certain how long this lasts. In contrast to many of the current methods available for treating pain, massage also appears to be relatively safe.
Myofascial massage is thought to be a promising treatment for addressing chronic pain following cancer surgery and may also be helpful in improving mobility.
Prevention of Chemotherapy-Related Neuropathic Pain
Neuropathic pain is common in people treated with the chemotherapy drug Taxol (paclitaxel) and can be very challenging to treat. A 2019 study found that people who underwent classical massage prior to a Taxol infusion reported less pain. This was also seen objectively in nerve conduction studies.
*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, or prescription of any kind. The decision to use, or not to use, any information is the sole responsibility of the reader. These statements are not expressions of legal opinion relative to the scope of practice, medical diagnosis, or medical advice, nor do they represent an endorsement of any product, company, or specific massage therapy technique, modality, or approach. All trademarks, registered trademarks, brand names, registered brand names, logos, and company logos referenced in this post are the property of their owners.