Patty Phillips, LMT
Patty Phillips, LMT

Massage Therapy & Breast Cancer

Massage Therapy & Breast Cancer

October is breast cancer awareness month. According to, 12 percent of women in the U.S. develop invasive breast cancer throughout their lifetime. This year alone, an estimated 280,000 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed. Patients who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatments have a lot on their mind. From scheduling treatment to working with additional health care providers to managing symptoms and side effects, these patients—in both mind and body—are often taxed.

Today, however, advancements in both science and medicine are making cancer and cancer treatment more promising for and less demanding of the patient. Some of these advancements involve how health care providers are approaching treatment. Integrative medicine approaches, for example, are showing how patients can be treated not only for the disease but also for the disease symptoms and side effects that so often mean a decrease in a patient’s quality of life and an increase in their stress, anxiety and pain.

Massage therapy is becoming an essential part of integrative treatment plans for cancer patients. Read on to learn more about some of the benefits massage offers, as well as one massage therapist’s experience with cancer and how the profession she loves helped see her through.

One on One

Patty Phillips, LMT of Get in Touch Massage Therapy based in Renton, Washington, on the topic of cancer and massage therapy: She is both a massage therapist and a cancer survivor. “The increased awareness and insight has added to my life personally, as well as having a profound impact on me as a massage therapist,” she says. Phillips was gracious enough to share some of her experiences and advice for others in the massage therapy profession.

A Personal Battle

Phillips had her last treatment for stage II breast cancer almost two years ago. “What a humbling life-changing learning experience this has been,” she says. At the time of her cancer diagnosis, Phillips was managing an integrated health clinic she started in 1995. The clinic offered not only massage therapy, but acupuncture, hypnotherapy and physical therapy. “My normal schedule was five days a week with five or six massage sessions per day,” she explains.

Slowing down wasn’t on her radar.

Nor did she think she would have to after being diagnosed. “After the initial shock, after the doctors telling me I would need to slow down, my naive expectation was to keep my usual routine.” But Phillips also knew the effects of cancer on a deeper, personal level. Phillips had a best friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years prior to her own diagnosis. In many ways, helping her friend through became a roadmap for Phillips, even when the two journeys would prove very different in significant ways. “It was my privilege to be part of her journey, including doctor appointments, all her chemo trips and providing massage therapy throughout her ordeal,” she remembers.

Her own experience with breast cancer, comparatively, was dramatically more complicated. Phillips notes the significantly decreased ability to do much of anything for most of the chemo and radiation treatments, along with several visits to intensive care. For several weeks Phillips was unsure if she was going to beat the illness. “Fortunately, I am blessed with a great family, amazing friends and a tribe of massage therapists that gifted me with prayers, well-wishing cards, scarves, ginger ale and many supporting healing touches,” she says. Her husband, David, is also a massage therapist, and Phillips is grateful for his unwavering support along with “great foot massages!”

The Path Ahead

Today, Phillips credits much of her success in the field of oncology massage to the classes and research she has participated in, specifically noting the several courses taught by another one of our columnists, Tracy Walton, at some of the American Massage Therapy Association’s National Conventions.

“The information has been vital in giving massage to my own clients with past or present cancer, and awareness during my personal journey,” Phillips explains. Her journey with breast cancer will always inform her. When paired with research and the advances in understanding of how massage therapy can be used before, during and after cancer care treatments, Phillips feels the future of oncology massage therapy is strong. When there is an abundance of opportunity to expand expertise and learn more about cancer, clients are better served.

The Benefits of Massage: What the Research Says

Massage therapy can benefit clients dealing with cancer in myriad ways.

From pain relief to help with fatigue and nausea to stress relief, research is indicating that massage may prove helpful in managing a variety of symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

For example, a collaborative meta- analysis of research on massage therapy for pain conducted by the Samueli Institute and commissioned by the Massage Therapy Foundation with support from the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), found that massage therapy should be considered as a therapeutic option to help patients manage cancer pain.1

Additionally, a 2017 analysis found that massage therapy helped reduce pain for cancer patients when compared to those who did not receive massage therapy treatment.2 These reviews and others demonstrate massage therapy’s potential to help reduce anxiety and stress in patients recovering from surgery.3

A 2014 study of patients (suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia) who received 50 minutes of Swedish massage three times per week for seven weeks, cited a reduction of stress and increased comfort and relaxation for all participants involved. These participants were also tracked on their health-related quality of life (HQoL) and compared to a group of usual standard- of-care patients. These HQoL scales are comprised of five functional scales (physical, role, cognitive, emotional and social) and two symptom scales (fatigue and nausea) as well as the global QoL scale. These findings stated statistically significant increases in quality of life, when controlling for both stress and anxiety.4

In another research study from 2017, massage therapy was found beneficial for cancer-related sleep disorders and fatigue. In the randomized controlled trial of 60 patients diagnosed with acute leukemia undergoing chemotherapy, an examination was conducted to look at the effects of slow-stroke back massage. This experimental group received slow- stroke back massage three times a week over the course of four weeks. Massage significantly reduced progressive sleep disorder, pain and fatigue, and improved sleep quality over time.5

Her struggle and strength is constantly informing her practice, too. “The best advice we are given as massage therapists is to listen to our clients,” she says. This, along with continuing education and learning new skills, is the only proactive way to move both her practice and the profession forward. Cancer, as she eloquently reminds, is a unique and diverse diagnosis with extremely varied responses.


1. Courtney Boyd, MA, Cindy Crawford, BA, Charmagne F Paat, BS, Ashley Price, BS, Lea Xenakis, MPA, Weimin Zhang, PhD, Evidence for Massage Therapy (EMT) Working Group. “The Impact of Massage Therapy on Function in Pain Populations—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials: Part II, Cancer Pain Populations.” Pain Medicine, Volume 17, Issue 8, August 2016, Pages 1553–1568

2. Lee SH, Kim JY, Yeo S, Kim SH, Lim S, Meta- Analysis of Massage Therapy on Cancer Pain, Integr Cancer Ther. 2015 Jul;14(4):297-304.

3. Lee PL, Tam KW, Yeh ML, Wu WW. Acupoint stimulation, massage therapy and expressive writing for breast cancer: A systematic review and meta- analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complement Ther Med. 2016 Aug;27:87-101.

4. Taylor AG, Snyder AE, Anderson JG et al. Gentle Massage Improves Disease- and Treatment-Related Symptoms in Patients with

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. J Clin Trials. 2014; 4:1000161.

5. Miladinia M, Baraz S, Shariati A, Malehi AS. Effects of Slow-Stroke Back Massage on Symptom Cluster in Adult Patients With Acute Leukemia: Supportive Care in Cancer Nursing. Cancer Nurs. 2017 Jan/Feb;40(1):31-38.