Practicing Massage Therapy with Oncology Patients
Practicing Massage Therapy with Oncology Patients

Practicing Massage Therapy with Oncology Patients

By Donna Sarvello , LMT, BCTMB, MBA

Practicing Massage Therapy with Oncology Patients

By Donna Sarvello , LMT, BCTMB, MBA

With over 140 hospitals and cancer centers throughout the United States offering massage therapy services1, oncology massage is a rising employment opportunity for therapists, as well as an area of additional growth and progress for our profession.

If you are considering work in oncology massage, or perhaps already involved in your foundational training, below are bits of personalized advice from experienced and credentialed massage therapists specializing in this rewarding sector.

Oncology Massage Therapist Defined

Simply stated, an oncology massage therapist is educated in the latest concepts of cancer and massage, practices and understands the investigative, critical thinking, and communication skills necessary in working with the full range of cancer-related concerns. Furthermore, a safe massage plan generally revolves around the side effects (both short- and long-term) of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.2

In terms of credentials, it is important to understand that there are only two official credentials in the massage therapy profession: mandatory state licensure (LMT) and voluntary Board Certification (BCTMB). While there is not yet an official credential identifying oncology massage therapists, many therapists elect to identify themselves with their credentials and add a Specialization in Oncology Massage after completing nationally recognized training, such as through NCBTMB’s Specialty Certificate Program.


Jane Smith, LMT, BCTMB NCBTMB-Recognized Oncology Massage Specialist

NCBTMB Specialty Certificate Program in Oncology Massage

Whether you are a current massage therapist working with oncology patients or interested in pursuing work in this sector, it is important to note oncology massage is very rarely included in initial massage therapy training. More than likely, schools may invite a graduate or expert to speak on the topic to a group of students. If not presented during your initial massage therapy program, you may seek introductory continuing education programs online or near you. Unfortunately, this is not enough.

At minimum, seek out the following components of foundational training:

•        Educated and Experienced instructor (e.g. Licensed or Board Certified)

•        Minimum of 24 CEs in a live setting, ideally over multiple days

•        Clinical and knowledge-based infor- mation (including research)

•        Hands-on skill instruction

•        Direct, supervised clinical opportu- nity to work with a cancer survivor or patient undergoing cancer treatment

Launched in 2018, NCBTMB’s Specialty Certificate Program in Oncology Massage identifies educational programs with the Center of Advancement for Therapeutic Arts (CATA NYC) and

the Society for Oncology Massage (S4OM) inclusive of the above training outline. Whether you choose to pursue the full Specialty Certificate Program or simply wish to find credible, high- quality courses, more information on all available courses is available at

Continuing Education & Identifying Quality Instruction

Just as we renew our state license or Board Certification on a regular basis, continuing education in oncology massage is necessary to ensure ongoing safe and effective treatment for your patients. Continuing education may also be required by your employer, particularly if you work in a clinical environment.

When seeking continuing education, apply the above tips for a proper foundational training to your search as a starting point. Some additional questions you may consider when identifying the right continuing education program or course for you may include:

•        What programs or courses are being taught near me?

•        What is the objective of the program or course?

•        Who is/are the instructor(s)? What are his/her/their qualifications?

•        Is the program/course research- informed and does it demonstrate clinical integrity?

•        What are others saying about the program or course?

•        Is the course NCBTMB-approved?

•        Is the cost within my budget?

Not sure where to look for quality continuing education opportunities? Start with what you know—utilize your community at AMTA, NCBTMB, How many times I think if didn’t know better, I could have really caused a problem. Amazed at how this vulnerable and trusting human ended up on my table or in this chair today. How important it is that I am not trying to fix anything but, constantly willing to take the time to communicate, collaborate a plan, get informed consent, be consciously present, and utilize massage therapy to bring comfort, facilitate change in tissues, tension, breath and beings.”

—Xerlan Deery, LMT, BCTMB, Education Provider for S4OM to gain insight into available programs and courses, reviews or recommendations from fellow members, and possible trainings in your area.

NCBTMB-Recognized Oncology Massage Specialist, S4OM Preferred Practitioner

Where to Work As an oncology Massage Therapist

Many massage therapists and patients believe oncology massage is only performed in hospitals or cancer centers. That is not true. Oncology massage is offered in hospitals, cancer centers, private and group practices, spas, franchises, gyms, fitness centers, franchises, and sporting events.

Surprised at the number of environments integrating oncology massage? Keep in mind: more and more individuals are surviving cancer because of advances in medical technology, treatment, and a significant increase in early detection. Additionally, witnessing national organizations, oncology non-profits, hospitals, cancer centers, and health professionals around the world recommend massage therapy for survivors and people in cancer treatment is encouraging survivors and patients more than ever to seek out massage therapists convenient to them to skillfully and effectively impress them, give them relief, respite, and recover.

Credentials Make a Difference

As oncology massage awareness grows, and the demand for skilled therapists

to provide oncology massage in various environments increases, setting yourself apart from other practicing therapists

is key. To remain competitive, further identify yourself as an expert in your field, and continue to provide patients with the best possible care, consider pursuit of the following milestones and credentials:

•        Graduate from an NCBTMB-approved 500-hour massage therapy program

•        Provide proof of current massage therapy state license (if applicable)

•        Complete a foundational oncology massage training (minimum 24 CEs live)

•        Provide proof of current NCBTMB Board Certification in Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork3

•        Achieve the NCBTMB Specialty Certificate in Oncology Massage4

Think of your patients as employers, too. Just as you seek training that is clinical, knowledge-based, and up to date on the latest research, your patients will expect the same of you. By achieving the above milestones and credentials, as well as continuing your education over time, you set yourself up for continued success in this rewarding sector for years to come.

Above all, credentials encourage dialogue. Just as you will work to communicate to better understand your client and his/her needs prior to creating a treatment plan, an introductory conversation identifying and explaining your credentials allows them to better understand you—which, in turn, manages expectations of you, the session, and future outcomes.

Testimonials from Oncology Massage Therapists

“It is such an honor and a deep responsibility to get to serve patients, survivors, the spouses, family members, and caregivers. It is such a challenge for me to describe this feeling of being able truly make a difference in someone’s quality of life. At the end of each day, it still stuns me how much happens involving communication about contraindications, pain, constipation, hope, fear, and death.

“Cancer patients are very savvy regarding their cancer, treatment, medications, and side effects. Many are seeking to gain a sense of ‘normal’ as they move through their treatment by asking more questions and researching complimentary modalities and ideas to integrate into their daily lives and are making appointments for massage at spas, gyms, private MT practices, and more.

Asan Oncology Massage Therapist, being prepared to work thoughtfully, safely, and effectively with the cancer population, in whatever stage of their disease—whether newly diagnosed, currently in treatment, or several years post treatment. And, in whatever setting they show up, know you are doing good not only for the patient and your career, but for our profession.”

—Felicia Newsome, LMT, NCBTMB-Recognized Oncology Massage Specialist, Managing Director, Oncology Massage Program at CATA NYC