Breast Cancer and Massage

The benefits of massage can be far-reaching

Getting a diagnosis of breast cancer is incredibly stressful. Life is turned upside down as you become consumed with the details of the diagnosis, the surgery, treatments and the vulnerable road to recovery.

Massage is something that can help – and at every stage of the cancer journey, according to Debra Curties, executive director and co-owner of the Toronto-based Sutherland-Chan School of Massage Therapy, which has a designated breast treatment clinic.

“The diagnosis stage is a very fearful time and a massage therapist can help with simple stress release when it’s hard to sleep, hard to concentrate and relax,” says Debra, who’s been doing breast massage for almost 30 years. “It also just feels like a safe place.”

Patients may have trouble sleeping for the duration of their treatment and encounter a range of side effects in the process, many of which can also be mitigated by massage. “When you’re in treatment, you need sleep for recovery, physically and emotionally, and massage can really help with sleep promotion. A knowledgeable massage therapist can also help with nausea, skin irritation from radiation, inflammation and other things that come up. It’s a way to help you endure that first year.”

In some cases, massage can also reduce the need for pain and sleep medication. And while there’s no definitive proof that massage boosts the immune system, Debra believes that “if a person is more relaxed, has less anxiety, is in less pain and is sleeping better, then it stands to reason their immune system will be a little more resilient.”

Normalcy is what many people desperately seek during the cancer journey. Debra cites a Swedish qualitative study that examined the relationship between breast cancer and massage. It found that patients undergoing chemotherapy who got a massage the same day as their chemo treatment described it as a kind of ‘oasis of normalcy’.

There are times, however, when massage can also be uncomfortable since it tends to be deep work. And sometimes it has to be postponed entirely if patients are undergoing radiation and their skin is extremely irritated, or if they’re in the midst of chemo and are simply too sick or too weak to be anywhere but at home in bed.

Once surgery and cancer treatments are over, massage tends to focus on the upper body and the resulting scar tissue which can feel stiff and tight and therefore restrict movement. “Massage can make scar tissue more functional, less painful and less stressful,” explains Debra. She’s seen a swimmer, for example, who used massage to help regain full arm motion and a singer who couldn’t fully expand her chest to create the sound she wanted because of scar tissue.

“So many breast cancer survivors get the impression there’s nothing more that can be done for them,” says Debra. “They often hear from doctors, ‘well, you’re alive aren’t you?’ – that sort of message – even though they’re left with a range of motion problems, shoulder usage issues, pain, or other symptoms – things they can get relief from but don’t realize it.” Debra says massage warms and softens tissues, progresses slowly and sometimes incorporates other elements, like heat and wax treatments.

“A lot of what we do is loosening scar tissue to increase range of motion as much as possible. “I’ve had so many people in our clinic say, ‘I was told to expect this to be my new normal’. Then they hear about us and come to us and say ‘thank you, I had no idea’. It can make such a difference for the person,” says Debra.

Scar tissue massage is a specialized skill and not all that common. Debra recommends patients contact their local branches of the Canadian Cancer Society or Wellspring to ask about qualified massage therapists. “The more demand there is the more likely people will step up,” she says. “And it’s starting to happen.”

Meanwhile, any good, professional massage therapist can still help during the cancer journey, says Debra. “The types of overall benefits, like relaxation, stress management, and the handling of general symptoms like nausea can absolutely by helped with general massage skills.”