In spite of great strides in the treatment of cancer in recent years, people who have the disease often suffer pain, anxiety and nausea caused as much by the treatments as the cancer itself. Hospitals are now employing a variety of unconventional therapies to help cancer patients and one of the most popular and effective is massage.
Massage therapists are on hand nearly every day at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which is part of the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. They provide a therapy that is aimed not so much at curing the disease, but at alleviating the stress and emotional fatigue of their patients.
Cancer patient Celeste was a believer in the benefits of massage before being diagnosed and is an even bigger believer now.
"There is something about another person touching you that makes you feel… it just makes you feel good. It gives you hope that they are not scared of you just because you have cancer," she said.
Celeste says many people are afraid of cancer and those who have it. She says her own family members even had trouble saying the word for a long time after she told them she had a malignant tumor in her throat. She says her longtime massage therapist turned her away.
"When I got diagnosed, I called my regular massage therapist that I was going to and she refused to massage me because I had cancer,” she recalled. “I told her that my doctor said it was okay, but she said she had been taught never to massage someone who had cancer because it could spread the cancer."
Medical experts say there is no risk to cancer patients from massage, as long as the therapist avoids the area of the body where the cancer is present. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is working with massage therapists in the Houston area to educate them about cancer and to let them know they can provide services to cancer patients.
Massage therapist Curtis Beinhorn, who works full-time at M.D. Anderson, says cancer patients need massage more than those who are healthy.
"Many patients feel fatigue, nausea, pain and anxiety,” he said. “They have psycho-social issues that surround them as well as their families and massage takes a lot of that stress away. It helps them to relax."
M.D. Anderson, which is recognized around the world for its advanced cancer treatments, introduced massage and other non-standard therapies partly because research had shown their effectiveness. But M.D. Anderson Wellness Center administrator Laura Baynham-Fletcher says it was also in response to patient demand.
"We did a survey of our patients and about 80 percent of the patients here at Anderson who responded to the survey stated that they were engaging in some type of complementary therapy, whether it be a spiritual practice they brought to cancer or something that they started doing as a result of their diagnosis," she explained.
Other complementary therapies now being offered at M.D. Anderson include acupuncture, special diet and exercise programs and herbal medicines. But Laura Baynham-Fletcher says these therapies should not be seen as alternatives to conventional therapies.
"We actually look at these therapies as complementary, so we do not even use the term alternative because that implies that these therapies might be used instead of conventional therapies," she added.
Conventional cancer treatments include chemotherapy and radiation, both of which can produce debilitating side effects. Curtis Beinhorn says patients provide constant testimony to the efficacy of massage in reducing these maladies.
"We always take note of what they say,” noted Mr. Beinhorn. “They always leave notes about how wonderful they felt, how they were able to relax, how they were able to get some sleep the night afterwards, and that it made such a big difference to feel connected again."
Massage therapy is now recognized by the American Cancer Society as an important complementary therapy for cancer patients. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is also working with a university in Shanghai, China to study and test other ancient therapies that may also help people who are fighting a disease like cancer.