A diagnosis of cancer is a powerful transforming experience for the patient, his/her family, relatives and friends. It may be a time when a patient embarks on a change of lifestyle which may incorporate a more healthy diet, cleansing juices, yoga, meditation, reiki and other forms of bodywork. It may also be a time when the patient falls into a state of anxiety, deep sadness, depression and despair. Massage is often considered a luxury but for people with a serious illness like cancer, it can be a powerful instrument to help cope with medical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery as well as with struggles related to personal relationships and personal issues, which more than likely involves both physical and emotional plights.
OM is a light, relaxing massage which can safely be performed on people at all stages of cancer. It is an adaptation of massage designed to suit the individual with cancer or a history of cancer. It consists of smooth flowing strokes and gentle circular motions with the level of touch being extremely light and sensitive to the patient's tolerance level. Carers can also benefit from this type of massage, particularly during times of hardship and deep concern for a loved one. Even people who don't have cancer but who are emotionally and physically fragile can benefit from this type of nurturing massage.
OM works safely with tumour sites as well as devices positioned in various parts of the body such as PICC lines, ports, central IV catheters or colostomy bags. Tumour or treatment sites are not massaged in order to avoid discomfort on the affected area and underlying organs and special care is taken to not interfere with surgical sites, ports and intravenous lines during an oncology massage. Gentle touches on these sites may commence once healing has taken place and the patient does not feel any tenderness or discomfort.
OM can be extremely beneficial in smoothening out post-surgery scars on the skin. Some cancer patients may be concerned about having a massage. It may have been thought once that massage has the ability to spread cancer cells throughout the body via the lymphatic system, the latter composed of a network of vessels, organs and nodes through which lymphatic fluid flows. But the myth that massage can actually spread cancer has finally been dispelled. (Ref: Medicine Hands by Gayle MacDonald, Ch. 2 Understanding Metastasis).
The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system and lymphatic circulation occurs naturally upon any movement of the body. Muscles contract and compress lymph vessels to force the movement of lymph. Cancer may spread (metastasise) into the lymphatic system via the lymph nodes, or it may start in the lymphatic system itself. However, the circulation of lymph, from the pressure of massage or any other movement such as walking, bending or drying the body with a towel after a shower, does not cause cancer to spread. Researchers have shown that cancer develops and spreads because of changes to a cell’s DNA (genetic mutations) and other processes in the body. Furthermore, hospitals dealing with cancer treatments are now recognising the benefits of massage and reflexology. The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre has been at the forefront of a reflexology program for a decade and I have been involved with this service as a volunteer, amongst others, for almost nine years. The Hospital staff and patients alike in the Chemotherapy Day Unit and other wards, including Palliative Care, welcome these nurturing sessions. Moreover, it is now also acknowledged that patients feel relaxed after a session and can more readily face their medical treatments. The Olivia Newton-John Cancer, located at the Austin Hospital, has established a Wellness Centre that focusses on a holistic approach incorporating massage and relaxation techniques. And then there's the Ian Gawler's Living Centre where people on retreat are encouraged to experience massage and reflexology.
Research shows that relaxation is vital for the cancer patient and that massage helps release chemicals called endorphins such as anandamide, a name taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means "bliss". Endorphins, generally speaking, interact with the receptors in the brain that reduce one's perception of pain. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to the "euphoric" feeling that follows a satisfying exercise routine, thus imparting a positive and energizing outlook on life. Endorphins act as analgesics, a natural morphine which helps diminish the perception of pain. Endorphins also act as sedatives to calm the frail nervous system. Endorphins are manufactured in the brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of the body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors that endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. But unlike morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. Research also shows that massage gives an immediate boost with a significant improvement in neutrophils, the type of white blood cells that are the first immune cells to arrive at a site of infection and that can have a phagocytic action, meaning that they can ingest a pathogen. Furthermore, research also proves that massage shows a significant improvement in NK (Natural Killer) cells, a small type of killer cell that destroys virus-infected cells or tumour cells without activation by an immune system cell or antibody.
Oncology Massage in Summary:
- Is nurturing, soothing and calming.
- reduces stress levels which is beneficial to the immune system and in turn beneficial to the cancer patient in strengthening his/her body for the fight against the cancer.
- is safe at any stage of treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.
- closely scheduled to pre and post-medical treatments can facilitate a faster recovery time..
- is adaptable and has a touch for even the most sensitive patient who cannot tolerate massage strokes..
- focusses on creating a gentle, nurturing environment for the patient.
- can improve bowel movements, as cancer treatment drugs can cause constipation.
- can modify the unwanted unpleasant side effects such as fatigue and nausea.
- gives support to patients experiencing feelings of isolation which can be alleviated through gentle touch.
Whilst there are very few contraindications in regard to having an oncology massage session, the OM therapist may decide not to go ahead with the massage if the patient is suffering from infections, blood clots or chronic inflammation. Always consult with your Oncologist if in doubt.
Approved Oncology Massage Therapist (OM2) and Volunteer at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre Vitalchi has put together a team ready to support their clients with cancer. We are offering :
- Oncology Massage
- Dietary Support
- Light Exercise Programs to build Strength
- And more services to come.