Compassionate Touch Before & After Cancer Care

by Carolyn McGinn, LMBT (NC 634)

Way back in the day, when I was in massage therapy school, we were taught to not touch people after a cancer diagnosis. The fear was that massage could spread cancer. Patients were told to “take it easy, relax, stay inactive.” Luckily, times have changed. Research shows that people living with cancer actually benefit from exercise, returning to their daily routines, and receiving massage therapy from a skilled therapist.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be one of the scariest events in a person’s life. Often, people living with cancer experience fear, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. They feel that their bodies are being attacked, not only by the cancer, but also by the treatment. Surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation have side effects, many that are long lasting.

Massage Therapy can improve quality of life during & after cancer treatment.

While massage doesn’t treat the cancer itself, it can be an important part of overall treatment plan. Studies have shown that massage during cancer treatment can:

•  Decrease pain
•  Improve range of motion
•  Reduce anxiety
•  Reduce depression 
•  Alleviate feelings of isolation
•  Improve sleep
•  Reduce fatigue
•  Increase feelings of wellness and connection to body
•  Improve perception of treatment

Is your therapist qualified?

Oncology Massage is “the adaptation of massage to safely nurture the body, mind, and spirit of anyone diagnosed with cancer” (Society for Oncology Massage).

While massage therapy is safe and nurturing during all stages of the cancer experience, it is important to ask your therapist about their specific training and experience with people living with cancer. The Society for Oncology Massage recommends therapists complete a minimum of 24 hours of continuing education specifically with people living with cancer. Some questions to ask:

•  Are you licensed? (in NC all massage therapists are licensed by the state)

•  Are you a member of a professional associate? (prof associations ensure adequate professional training)

•  Do you have additional training in Oncology Massage?

•  What experience do you have in working with people with cancer?

•  What precautions/adjustments would you take in working with me?

For a full list of questions and a downloadable worksheet, go to

What can you expect during a massage therapy session?

Living with cancer can be very complicated and one size does not fit all. Here are some things to consider and expect when working with a massage therapist:

1.  Lots of questions. Your medical history is important in order for your therapist to take proper precautions. Specific areas to be addressed are:

•  Pain
•  Fatigue
•  Lymphedema risk
•  Nausea
•  Incision sites
•  Neuropathy
•  Low white blood count

2.  Adjustments for your comfort and safety. Your therapist will make adjustments in five main areas:

•  Position – depending on the location of the cancer and type of treatment, you will be positioned on the massage table for your comfort.

•  Site – your therapist may need to work around surgical sites, ports, or lymph node removal. Lymphedema is a life-long risk for anyone who has had lymph nodes removed. Your skilled therapist will know how to work with you in a safe way.

•  Speed – your therapist will work slowly and gently. Your body is dealing with so much already. Your massage should be comforting, not taxing. 

•  Duration – you may want to begin with shorter (30 minute) sessions to see how you react to massage.

•  Pressure – less is more. It may feel good to have those knots worked out, but a deep massage could leave you fatigued the next day.

3.  An experience that is uniquely yours. You and your therapist will design massage sessions that address where you are in your cancer journey, what you need specifically, and how to get the most benefit for you.

If you are interested in adding massage therapy as a compliment to your cancer treatment, first talk with your oncologist. Learn if he or she has any concerns about you receiving massage. Then find a skilled therapist who specializes in oncology massage. Talk with your therapist about your specific conditions, any concerns you have, and learn how massage therapy can benefit you.

“Skilled touch is beneficial at nearly every stage of the cancer experience, during hospitalization, the pre- or post-operative period, in the outpatient clinic, during chemotherapy and radiation, recovery at home, remission, or cure and in the end stages of life.”  Gayle MacDonald,, MS, LMT, Author of “Medicine Hands: Massage for People Living with Cancer”

Carolyn McGinn is a Licensed Massage & Bodywork Therapist (NC #634). She completed her In-Depth Oncology Massage
training in October, 2019 through Hands on Health. For more information, visit
 To make an appointment, call or text (252) 353-1121 or email

%d bloggers like this: