Massage Therapy


Nancy Hepp, MS, BCCT Project Manager

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Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, BCCT Senior Researcher

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Maria Williams, BCCT Research & Communications Consultant

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Last updated December 4, 2020.

Key Points

  • Massage is the manipulation of muscles and other soft tissues in the body and may range from light stroking to deep pressure.
  • Clinical practice guidelines cite use of massage for managing anxiety, mood disturbance, pain, and peripheral neuropathy.
  • Massage may also help to improve sleep disruption, nausea, feelings of hopelessness and other negative emotions, physical complaints and markers of stress, quality of life, fatigue, and breast symptoms.
  • Massage therapy administered by a trained massage therapist is generally safe, with few adverse outcomes.
  • Massage therapy delivered by an oncology-trained massage therapist is recommended.

Massage is the manipulation of muscles and other soft tissues in the body. Massage may range from light stroking to deep pressure, with a goal to release tension or stress in the tissues. Studies of the benefits of massage find it an effective treatment for reducing anxiety, pain and muscle tension. It may help with other symptoms and conditions such as insomnia and anxiety.1 Massage may be accompanied by aromatherapy.

Clinical Practice Guidelines

The Society for Integrative Oncology evidence-based clinical practice guidelines cite massage to manage these symptoms. The guidelines recommend massage as useful in integrative plans combining two or more therapies (multimodality treatment):2

Breast Cancer Guideline

Clinical practice guidelines for use of massage therapy with breast cancer:3

  • Can be considered for reducing anxiety
  • Recommended for improving mood disturbance

Chronic Pain Guideline

The 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline for managing chronic pain in survivors of adult cancers makes a weak recommendation for using massage.4

Peripheral Neuropathy Guideline

The patient-education resource from the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) advises an integrative approach including massage to manage peripheral neuropathy.5

Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness

Managing or relieving side effects or symptoms, reducing treatment toxicity, supporting quality of life or promoting general well-being

Stronger Evidence

The clinical practice guidelines described above reviewed all the evidence available at the time and concluded that massage therapy is effective for these symptoms (further research in footnotes since those guidelines were published affirms these findings):

Emerging Evidence

Evidence shows further benefits of massage therapy for these symptoms, but study designs or methods are not always strong and conclusions are weak:

Primarily physical symptoms

  • Breast symptoms: reduced long-term symptoms relating to the breast in people with breast cancer14
  • Fatigue: reduced fatigue15 compared to other active therapies for cancer patients also experiencing pain,16 for patients in cancer treatment compared with usual care,17 or patients with breast cancer18 although one meta-analysis found no difference with massage19
  • Nausea: alleviated nausea20 although one meta-analysis found no difference with massage21 and another systematic review found weak evidence of effect22
  • Physical complaints and markers of stress: reduced severity of subjective physical complaints and reduced markers of stress in survivors of gynecologic cancers (uterine, cervical, endometrial, ovarian, fallopian tubal, or peritoneal cancer) following Anma therapy (Japanese massage)23 and of physical and psychological symptoms in breast cancer patients with aromatherapy massage,24 although one meta-analysis found no overall difference with massage2526

Primarily mental or emotional symptoms

  • Hopelessness: reduced feelings of hopelessness in patients undergoing treatment27
  • Negative emotions, including anger: reduced anger and negative emotions in cancer patients28
  • Stress: alleviated stress in patients with cancer29

Other symptoms

  • Quality of life: improved quality of life score with aromatherapy massage30 or massage31 compared to no massage, although one meta-analysis found no difference with massage alone32
  • Symptoms in children with cancer: massage alleviated pain, nausea, stress and anxiety33

Optimizing Your Terrain

Creating an environment within your body that does not support cancer development, growth or spread

Massage increased white blood cells and neutrophils in children with cancer.34


Massage therapy administered by a trained massage therapist is generally safe, with few adverse outcomes.35 The National Cancer Institute urges massage therapists to take precautions with all cancer patients and avoid massaging specific vulnerable areas of the body. In addition, certain patients with multiple bone metastases may be at risk for fracture during deep massage.36

Massage therapy delivered by an oncology-trained massage therapist is recommended.37 Oncology massage therapists are keenly aware of any cautions and how to adapt massage for individual needs.38 See below for a website to locate an oncology massage therapist in North America.


Massage therapists are widely available, including within many cancer centers. The Society for Oncology Massage has a search page to locate therapists in North America.

Some insurance plans pay for medically indicated massage therapy.

Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems

For more information about programs and protocols, see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.

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