Despite enormous strides made in research and treatment, cancer continues to afflict a growing number of Canadians each year. While it’s encouraging to note that survival rates are also on the rise, the Canadian Cancer Society reports that cancer remains the number one cause of death in our country, resulting in about 500 new diagnoses every day.
Conventional medicine strives to systematically eradicate cancer from patients’ bodies. Surgeons, oncologists, radiation therapists and hematologists are all singularly dedicated to arresting the division of abnormal cells. However, while in pursuit of this targeted objective, traditional practitioners typically overlook the more holistic dimensions of healing - and how best to promote quality of life during invasive treatments and challenging recoveries.
With its focus on natural whole-body healing, massage therapy has emerged as an effective complementary treatment for cancer patients. Evidence is mounting in support of MTs capacity to help reduce the painful symptoms associated with cancer, strengthen the immune system, and provide relief from stress for patients engaged in chemical or surgical interventions. Massage therapy training equips students with an understanding of the pathophysiology of cancer.
Massage therapists have a range of techniques that can be helpful in reducing stress in cancer patients while strengthening the body’s natural ability to heal itself. For example, cranial sacral massage can help release restrictions in the soft tissues that surround the central nervous system, helping enhance its performance - and the functioning of every system with which it interacts. In addition to providing relief from headache and tension, cranial sacral therapy can help empower the body’s immune system, which in the case of cancer patients, may be compromised by the spread of abnormal cells, surgery, or radiation therapy.
While undergoing conventional interventions, cancer patients are vulnerable to a range of challenging symptoms that may undermine energy levels, appetite and overall wellbeing. Swedish massage can help alleviate pain and nausea associated with chemical therapies, reduce stress, and promote more restful sleep - valuable assets for patients facing repeated rounds of treatment.
Manual lymphatic drainage has also been found effective in treating Lymphedema, a cancer-related condition caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in the soft tissues of a limb. Lymphedema can arise when patients undergo radiation, surgery, or suffer an infection. The condition typically results in various degrees of swelling, burning, blistering and restricted mobility of the affected limb. Lymphatic drainage massage helps treat Lymphedema by applying a slow, light, rhythmic touch that moves the trapped fluid onward, throughout the lymphatic system.
Massage therapy education encompasses both the application of learned techniques and the principles of assessment. When assessing patients with cancer, MTs may first consult with the primary physician in order to confirm that massage therapy is an appropriate complementary treatment. After inquiring into the established treatment plan, the massage therapist will select - or adapt - the techniques identified as most useful to the patient’s overall wellbeing. For example, patients who have undergone radiation therapy may experience discomfort when touched on the treatment area. MTs are careful to avoid contact with this sensitive tissue when acute, including exposure to massage oil or lotion. Also, in cases where cancer has spread to the bone, massage therapists will favor light strokes over deep tissue work in order to protect against fracture.
In their capacity to support patients in non-invasive ways, graduates of massage therapy college are considered valuable additions to the traditional team of cancer specialists. They work in hospitals, hospices and in private practice, supporting patients as they embark on the challenging journey through treatment toward recovery.
What other massage techniques do you believe are useful in the treatment of cancer patients?