Does massage spread cancer?


This post follows on from my previous one, entitled “Can I still get a massage if I have cancer?” It’s worth reading that one too if you haven’t already.

In the last post I highlighted that there is no need to deny massage to people with a history of cancer provided that the treatment is given by therapists with appropriate training in oncology massage. However, there are still fears among some that massage can cause cancer to spread, so I thought it would be appropriate to tackle those fears in this post.

Why was massage contraindicated for cancer patients in the past?

The short answer is because massage is believed to increase circulation, and this was thought to increase cancer spread (metastasis). I say ‘believed to’ because there is more research to be done in this area. While massage may increase circulation there are still unanswered questions regarding where exactly (at the site of massage? systemically? in deeper tissues? in the skin?), and for how long the effects last. This aside, the fear was that the boost in circulation would help cancer spread.

How does cancer spread?

Put in its simplist terms: cancer cells shed from the original tumor; they enter the bloodstream/lymphatic system; they implant elsewhere.

Now there’s quite a lot more to it than that but those are the basic stages involved. The cells do indeed circulate around the body, but most of them don’t form new tumors. For a start many don’t survive the rough ride around the circulatory systems. Others are destroyed by the body’s immune system. Furthermore, to be able to successfully reproduce once they are implanted the conditions have to be right. The new tissue environment needs to be favourable and there must be access to nutrients.

“[Metastasis] is quite a complicated process and most cancer cells don’t survive it. Probably, out of many thousands of cancer cells that reach the bloodstream, only a few will survive to form a secondary cancer.” Cancer Research UK, How Cancer Can Spread

So what are the implications if the circulation increases? Here are some questions to think about:

  1. If someone with cancer was to avoid any practices that increased his circulation (i.e. adopt a completely sedentary lifestyle), would that stop his cancer from spreading?
  2. Do doctors advise cancer patients not to exercise?
  3. Are people with cancer discouraged from taking part in fundraising races, such as Race for Life?

The answer to all 3 questions is no. Blood flow rate is not a factor in metastasis and cancer patients are encouraged by medical professionals to maintain healthy lifestyles

If you need reassurance, here are some quotes from some authoritative sources (with links to the originals):

“In general it [research] recommended the same level of activity for people with cancer as for the general population…If you’re having treatment or have recently finished, it’s fine to start exercising if you feel like it. How much you do really depends on how fit you are generally.” Cancer Research UK’s Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients

“In a first, a national cancer organization has issued formal guidelines recommending exercise as part of cancer treatment, for all cancer patients. ” Harvard Medical School, Exercise as Part of Cancer Treatment

“The Telegraph says that Macmillan Cancer Support has found that “only a fifth of patients who have been through treatment are told of the ‘wonder drug’ type benefits of exercise”.” The NHS, People with Cancer Need More Exercise

“If you’re living with or after cancer, being physically active is safe and has lots of benefits. Knowing about these can give you the motivation to keep going.” Macmillan Cancer Support, Get Active Feel Good

So the experts aren’t worried about cancer patients increasing their circulation.  On the contrary, they are encouraged to do so.

Can massage disturb the original tumor site?

All therapists trained in oncology massage avoid known tumor sites. This is why they conduct an in depth consultation with their clients before any treatment is given. Theoretically massage could disturb the original site of a tumor, but pressure would need to be applied directly to the site, and no therapist would do that, it’s common sense.

In conclusion

Skilled massage, following a detailed consultation, that takes into account known tumor sites will not spread cancer. If massage does indeed increase circulation this does not raise concerns about cancer spread. Metastasis is a complex process and implantation at new sites is not influenced mechanically by gentle touch. This is why massage is often available at cancer centres around the UK.



Post Author: Tash_87