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  • Writer's pictureLiz Jester

Oncology Massage Therapy FAQ Series: What makes Oncology Massage different from "normal" massage?

Updated: May 25, 2019

Technically, there's no single type of "normal" massage. But I understand the meaning behind the question. In many ways, oncology massage therapy (OMT) is much like traditional massage therapy. Every good "traditional" massage is customized to the person on the table; it's no different with oncology massage. Oncology massage also uses traditional, established massage techniques. It's not a separate modality.

But there are a few things that make OMT unique:

1) Oncology massage is specifically adapted to the goals and desires of individuals experiencing cancer, or with a history of cancer. These goals are often related to treatment, or to symptoms that arise from the disease itself. Some of these goals might include reducing nausea, fatigue, bone pain or systemic/chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

2) Oncology massage is specifically adapted to the health picture of individuals experiencing cancer, or with a history of cancer. This means special considerations are taken for things unique to cancer and its treatment, such as low platelet counts, medical devices, removal of lymph nodes, history of lymphedema, complications and side effects arising from radiation or chemotherapy, surgical sites, low white blood cell counts, and more. Chances are, if a complication or symptom exists, we can almost always adapt to it and still give a safe, effective massage. It is very, very rare for someone to not be able to receive a massage.

3) The intake form and interview are also different from my general massage intake. Questions are asked about the client's health picture, so that we can make sure to adapt to situations like the ones I've listed above in point 2.

4) The adaptations vary. Here are some examples of adaptations I might make for different clients experiencing cancer. These are not real client names:

Jane has had a double mastectomy, with 10 lymph nodes removed on her left side, and three removed on her right. She does not have any history of swelling in her arm. This means she is at risk for lymphedema. As a result, my pressure, rhythm, and stroke direction will be adjusted on Jane's arms and upper torso/chest, so that I do not trigger lymphedema.

Joe has peripheral neuropathy in his hands and feet. I'll talk with Joe to determine his pain and numbness levels in his hands and feet. If he can tolerate it, I will massage his hands and feet. I often use tea tree oil, and a specific type of rhythm/stroking on extremities affected by neuropathy.

Marilyn has metastasis to her spine and rib cage. As a result, I'll use careful pressure in these areas.

Alex has a low platelet count, and has metastasis to the liver which is impacting his liver function. I will work gently overall for two reasons: to avoid triggering bruising due to his low platelet count, and to avoid increasing circulation and challenging the system, as one of his vital organs is currently compromised.

Each week, along with the answer to the frequently asked question, I'll also post a related myth, and debunk it with facts about OMT. Here's this week's myth:

Common myth: Oncology massage is always extremely light and doesn't address muscle tension.

Debunk: Oncology massage, as mentioned above, is customized to the individual. While certain side effects and symptoms call for lighter pressure overall, many side effects and symptoms do not. Slow, intentional, full-handed strokes are also used, so even the light pressure work feels substantial and satisfying. Oncology massage or not, subtle work can often be just as effective -- if not more effective -- than deep work.

What other questions do you have about OMT? Stay tuned for next week's question and answer.

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