Quashing the Fear That Massage Spreads Cancer

Denise Theobald

For years, there's been a widespread myth that all massage was contraindicated (i.e. not recommended) for anybody with cancer. This was based on the underlying fear that massage could speed along the process of cancer metastasis, or the spreading of the disease. However, cancer patients who undergo massage tend to report relief from the five most common symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment: pain, nausea, fatigue, depression, and anxiety. If it's true that stress contributes to cancer, it follows that massage should be an effective treatment.

Even so, many people fear that massage can spread cancer, and understandably so. From the outside, it makes sense. After all, it’s a known fact that massage promotes circulation. It’s also a known fact that cancerous cells travel throughout the body via the bloodstream. It seems to make sense that better circulation would simply move cancerous cells more quickly through the body.

But, if increasing blood flow significantly contributes to a rise in metastasis, cancer patients would be warned against any type of activity — including exercise. The thought is that all animals dealing with cancer, including humans, would practically have to lie still all day to avoid speeding up blood flow. In actuality, we know that movement and exercise are wonderful for the body, particularly when dealing with serious disease such as cancer. There's abundant evidence that exercise is effective as prevention and treatment for a number of different types of cancer. This is widely accepted by mainstream medicine. The bottom line is this – the improved circulation a body gets from massage therapy doesn't pose a danger of spreading cancer. It's a benefit.

The cause of metastasis is much more complex than just "loose cancer cells in the blood." To get metastasis started requires several interactions between cancer cells and the immune system. It also depends on the genetic structure of the cancer cell itself. So even if a cancer cell does get swept up into the circulatory path as a result of being abraded or pressured during a massage treatment, that doesn't mean it'll survive in the bloodstream, find a new host site, secure its own blood supply, and blossom into a new tumor. There's more to it than that.

Here is what is important. A trained massage therapist will avoid the areas of the body that are cancerous. So the whole question of whether massage is safe for cancer patients should be settled: You simply receive a massage on those parts of the body where there are no cancer cells to release or detach. This means communicating your needs to your therapist so he or she knows what to do.

This advice holds true in the world of canine massage therapy, too. Although most of the research on massage has been focused on humans, we find similar results with massage and our animals because of the similarity that exists between human and animal anatomy and physiology. A well-trained, knowledgeable canine massage therapist will work only on the parts of the dog’s body where cancer has not taken hold.

Along with the internal stress of the disease on a dog’s body and the stress that pet parents can radiate, dogs dealing with diseases like cancer have to deal with all kinds of pain, from medical procedures to exams to treatment. Massage is a refreshingly pleasant kind of touch the dog experiences. It helps by delivering comfort, relaxing energy, positive stimulation, and an overall good feeling. In many instances massage and acupressure can help an animal more efficiently eliminate and flush out excessive medication and drugs, such as those administered during chemotherapy. At the same time, massage allows more blood and oxygen into oxygen starved cells of the body.

In addition to providing massage, a canine massage therapist’s role is to support and empower pet parents. Pet parents can and should be shown how to apply safe and effective techniques at home to help their furry companion feel safe, feel better, and encourage the body to do what it is meant to do. When they have tools to use to help their dog during illness or transition, pet parents feel less vulnerable and can take an active role in the care of the animal they love.   

Sara May