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Is it safe to get a massage if I am undergoing chemotherapy?

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Updated November 09, 2010

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Question: Is it safe to get a massage if I am undergoing chemotherapy?
I am currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments every week. I would like to get a massage before each chemotherapy session to help me relax. Is is safe to get a massage if I am going through chemo?
Answer: Massage therapy can be a great way to relax from the stresses of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy can certainly heighten anxiety, and this can be a great way to relieve it. In fact, many doctors recommend massage as a form of complementary medicine to help people with cancer to relax, combat nausea, and control pain. Massage therapy, however, is not a form of treatment and will not prevent cancer from spreading or slow its growth.

Massages during cancer treatment aren't for everyone, so it's very important that you get your doctor's approval before having a massage. A massage may seem harmless, but in some instances, it can be unsafe for someone going through cancer treatment.

One of the most concerning reasons why you should be cautious is because of the risk of infection. Chemotherapy compromises your immune system, making you vulnerable to infections. Ensure that your massage therapist is not ill or suffering from a contagious ailment. It is also important that the therapist maintains a hygienic, clean environment and sanitizes the massage table after each client. If you have any sores, acne, or other skin eruptions, ask your therapist to avoid touching them during the massage.

Secondly, chemotherapy also puts you more at risk of bruising. A massage a few days following chemo during the nadir period can cause some moderate bruising.

Finally, if you have any bone metastasis, massage isn't recommended for that area of your body as fractures can occur.

If your doctor does allow you to have a massage, ask him to refer a licensed massage therapist (LMT) to you. Many cancer treatment centers offer massage therapy and other complementary therapies and may have a LMT on staff. It is very important that you see a massage therapist who is licensed and ideally has experience with people undergoing cancer treatment.

Sources:

Lively, BT et al., “Massage Therapy for Chemotherapy-Induced Emesis,” in Rich, GJ, ed. Massage Therapy: The Evidence for Practice. Edinburgh: Mosby, 85-104, 2002.

Weiger, WA et al., “Advising Patients who Seek Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies for Cancer,” Annals of Internal Medicine 137:889-903, 2002.

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