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The Oncology Massage Difference

by Deborah Hart

Every day there are beauty therapists, massage therapists,  nurses,  naturopaths, physiotherapists, chiropractors, occupational therapists and other health care professionals providing massage to people through hospitals, aged care facilities, clinics, day spas and home based practices all over Australia.

Massage has the power, when skilfully applied, to reduce pain, anxiety and literally change our biochemistry. That sea of chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones that constantly bathes our cells changes when we experience deep relaxation.

Oncology Massage is a very different style of massage with benefits for not just those clients that are very unwell or on a cancer journey but for anyone in need of deep relaxation.  Oncology Massage is a very light touch but mindful, focused, full contact massage technique that touches the client profoundly. Common feedback from clients is that it is quite simply exquisite, blissful, deeply relaxing and healing.

With nearly one million cancer survivors in Australia, how many practitioners and therapists providing massage to clients and patients ask about a previous cancer diagnosis or cancer treatment during client intake? What if an existing client receives a cancer diagnosis and wants to continue their massage sessions throughout their cancer treatment?

But wait, weren’t we all taught not to massage anyone with cancer? Won’t massage spread cancer cells? The short answer is no. Our lymphatic system is a complex system of the body and an integral component of our immune system. It is stimulated by movement, exercise  and yes, even by massage and while it is true that cancer cells can enter the lymphatics, movement and exercise have been shown to have a beneficial effect on the incidence of cancer and cancer recurrence. The spread of cancer cells or metastases is the result of a complex biological process not just the mechanical movement of cells around the body from one region to another.

So why do we need specialised training?

It is important to know how to modify a massage or bodywork session to accommodate the many side-effects and treatment outcomes that may accompany chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy treatment. Side-effects can include low blood counts, immune suppression, neuropathy, fatigue, nausea, pain, anxiety and depression.

If a client has had lymph nodes removed or treated with radiotherapy they may be at lifelong risk of developing lymphoedema and adjustments need to be made to be sure you are treating them safely, effectively and are not going to trigger an event that they may need to manage for the rest of their lives. These patients, even years after cancer treatment, can present with persistent pain from previous surgery and complications following lymph node removal for breast, prostate, melanoma and other cancers, and fatigue not to mention all the usual complaints which will result in someone seeking massage therapy.

Oncology Massage Training level 1 will give the practitioner an understanding of the possible treatments and side-effects of treatment that may have brought your client this far. Understanding how chemotherapy and radiotherapy work and how they can cause permanent changes to the body is important, so too are appreciating the impacts of surgery and the risk to some clients of developing lymphoedema. The Oncology Massage therapist has an important role to play in educating clients on self care and early intervention if they notice changes in their body.

Regardless of the type of massage being utilised, understanding the Oncology Massage concepts of Pressure, Site and Position will help the massage provider adjust a massage to accommodate any of the side effects or treatment outcomes often experienced by cancer patients. By using appropriate pressure the client will feel touched but not challenged with unwanted side-effects such as increased fatigue, bruising or increased pain. Knowing where on the body it is safe to massage and how to work around ports, appliances and surgical sites is an important part of Oncology Massage training as is knowing how to comfortably position the client or patient to ensure they experience the full benefit of the massage.

Common feedback from therapists completing this training is that they now have the confidence to massage clients that are undergoing cancer treatment. When the phone rings and the voice at the other end of it says “I would like a massage and I happen to have cancer” there is no panic, only the awareness that allows the therapist to make the necessary adjustments to the treatment to allow the client to enjoy a very special space for that time.  

Hippocrates is quoted as saying “Cure sometimes, treat often and comfort always” This principle is embraced in Oncology Massage as there are times when all we can offer is comfort, our complete presence and the knowledge that it is enough.

Oncology Massage therapists are trained in Australia and New Zealand by Oncology Massage Ltd, a not for profit training charity dedicated to ensuring that anyone on a cancer journey from diagnosis, through treatment into survivorship or to end of life have access to the benefits of safe touch. OM Ltd is the only organisation outside of the USA that is accredited to deliver Oncology Massage training. Oncology Massage Level 1 training is available to anyone interested in the science of cancer and providing safe touch to their clients or patients. With a tactile therapy qualification graduates are invited to complete OM level 2. An Oncology Massage for Beauty Therapists workshop has recently been developed to train beauty therapists to work safely with this client population also.

For more information on courses and testimonials please visit

Happiness is a not a destination, but the journey.

Dealing with cancer is both destination and journey.

Medicine focuses on the quality of the destination.

Oncology Massage focuses on the quality of the journey.


Hernandez-Reif M, Ironside G, Field T, Hurley J, Katz G, Diego M, Weiss S, Fletcher MA, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, Burman I, 2004, Breast cancer patients have improved immune and neuroendocrine functions following massage therapy, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57:45-52
Physical Activity and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis Michelle D. Holmes, MD, DrPH Wendy Y. Chen, MD Diane Feskanich, ScD Candyce H. Kroenke, ScD Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH  JAMA, May 25, 2005—Vol 293, No. 20 2479

Deborah Hart is a Director of OMLtd and SA/WA Coordinator. She has a Diplomas of Remedial Massage, Bowen Therapy and Clinical Nutrition and has been a Remedial Therapist for nearly 20 years in the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide. She works closely with local medical practitioners, physiotherapy and allied health practitioners. With a particular interest in palliative care she volunteers at the Modbury Hospital Palliative Care Unit regularly to help bring the benefits of safe and gentle touch to inpatients on the ward and outpatients.

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