According to a recent study in the Sept. 16 “Annals of Internal Medicine”; survivors coping with advanced cancer receive some relief from pain and depression from massage therapy.

The researchers found that survivors who received massage from a licensed, specially trained therapist reported greater improvements in pain and mood symptoms than did people who received simple touch therapy. However, these improvements were not durable and did not last over time.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Jean Kutner, an associate professor of medicine at the University Of Colorado Denver School Of Medicine said, “Our goal was to see if massage therapy compared to simple touch would be beneficial,”

The researchers measured patient outcomes immediately after massage sessions, and found that “massage was better than simple touch for pain and mood. But, on a weekly basis, there was no difference between the groups…..So, massage was better in the immediate time frame, but didn’t appear to have a sustained effect.”

The study included 380 adults with advanced lung, breast, pancreatic, colorectal and prostate cancer. All of the subjects reported at least moderate pain, and most also were receiving hospice care.

Half of the subject group received at least one massage therapy session from licensed therapists trained in oncology massage who had at least six months’ experience in cancer massage. The remaining subjects were given “simple touch” therapy. (Simple touch consisted of having a therapist place both hands on the patient for three minutes at 10 specific body sites).

All subjects were interviewed before and after each session, asking about pain and mood. Subjects were then re-interviewed three weeks later to assess if the therapy had any long-term effect. Pain was rated on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain). Mood was rated on a scale of 0 (worst mood) to 10 (best mood).

After massage therapy, mood scores immediately increased by an average of 1.58 points and pain scores decreased by 1.87 points. In the touch therapy group, mood immediately improved by an average of 0.97 points and pain decreased by an average of 0.97 points.

After three weeks, however, there were no statistically significant sustained changes, according to the study. It would have improved the study if the researchers had also included an additional control group who received no therapy.

Even though massage therapy has no long-term efficacy compared to touch therapy it does provide immediate positive effects so I remain an advocate and recommend that you consider including it in your treatment plan.

If you decide to have therapeutic message you should first consult with your oncologist. This is especially true for men with bone metastasize who have an increased risk of fractures.

Also, be cautious when selecting a therapist. Go only to a licensed massage therapist who has taken courses in oncology massage.

Not all insurance carriers reimburse for the cost of massage therapy so check first if you cannot self-pay.

Joel T Nowak MA, MSW