Some people worry that having a massage can encourage breast cancer to spread. We look at the facts about breast cancer and massages, as well as the benefits if practised safely. We’ve also put together some tips on finding a massage therapist and preparing for your appointment. Revised November 2020.
Can a massage spread cancer cells?
There is no evidence that massage can encourage breast cancer cells to spread around the body and it’s safe to have a massage even if you’re currently having treatment such as chemotherapy. In fact, massage can have many benefits for people with breast cancer.
So while in the past people with breast cancer were often turned away from spas, this is gradually changing. Some spas give their therapists specialist training in treating people with cancer.
What are the benefits of massage if you have breast cancer?
Massage can help with:
- muscle tension and stiffness
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- emotional wellbeing
Booking yourself in for a massage can be a great way to do something for yourself away from your everyday stresses. After a breast cancer diagnosis, feeling stressed and being less active than usual can contribute to muscle tension and discomfort. Massage involves working on the body’s muscles and joints, using the hands to stretch and apply pressure in rhythmic strokes, which can soothe stiffness and encourage deep relaxation. Many people leave feeling looked after, refreshed and more in control.
Some people find that massage also helps them feel energised, which may help if you have cancer-related fatigue.
Tips on finding a massage therapist
- contact your local cancer centre or hospital to see if they offer massage free of charge, or ask your breast care nurse or GP about this
- if you find a spa you like, call ahead to check if it has therapists trained to massage people who have had cancer, many spas also ask about pre-existing health conditions when you book
- search for a qualified, private therapist using the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council website
- the Amethyst Trust has produced standards for massage for people who have had cancer. You can also find therapists on their website
- consider a home visit – if you prefer, some therapists will give you your treatment in the comfort of your own home
Preparing for your appointment
Talk to your GP or treatment team first
Always check with your GP or treatment team before having a new complementary therapy.
Tell them about your breast cancer before you book the appointment. Some spas and therapists may still be anxious about giving massage to someone with breast cancer or they may have questions to help them plan your treatment.
Avoid deep tissue massage
Choose a gentle massage that focuses on relaxation and places less pressure on the body.
Think about what to wear
You’ll have to undress for your massage. If you’re stiff from surgery, wear a bra and clothes that are easy to take on and off. Your therapist will leave the room to give you privacy while you undress.
Some people think that certain oils such as lavender can be harmful when you have breast cancer. There is little evidence about this, but talk to your GP or treatment team if you’re concerned.
Important things to tell your therapist
Your therapist should avoid directly massaging the arm/shoulder area if you have lymphoedema. You can get a specialist lymphoedema massage (known as manual lymphatic drainage) to help improve the flow of lymph fluid.
If you have any soreness or discomfort from surgery, your therapist can provide extra cushions to protect any areas of discomfort or adjust your position. If you have pain in your arm or shoulder during the massage, ask your therapist to stop.
If you have recently completed radiotherapy, check with your treatment team if it is safe for you to have a massage on the area that's been treated.