Can Massage Relieve Pain And Nerve Damage From Breast Cancer Surgery? 

Massage table at The Gathering Place
Women in the study will receive massages twice a week for eight weeks at The Gathering Place, a Cleveland-based nonprofit focused on helping people with cancer. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]
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A cancer diagnosis is jarring, often meaning months or years of challenging treatment. And afterwards, if a person is lucky enough to be in remission, that’s usually considered the end of the story.

But for many survivors, it’s not the end. The treatments themselves can cause years of lingering issues, including heart problems, infertility, and hormonal and memory issues.

For people recovering from breast cancer surgery, it can mean nerve damage, pain, and muscle weakness.

A new trial is testing a potential solution for some women: a highly specialized version of massage therapy.

Jess Brady was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 27, and it changed her life, as it has for the nearly 3.5 million women in the United States with a history of breast cancer.

After chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, doctors told her she was cancer free. But she was left with nerve damage and pain and weakness in her arms, chest, and back.

That was when she learned about a study looking at the possible benefits of massage for women after breast cancer surgery.

“I actually just kind of stumbled upon the study by chance. I saw a flyer in my doctor’s office, and I thought right away this is something I would like to do,” Brady said. “I didn’t have any real hesitation; I thought if anything it will be at least relaxing and calming.”

It was the flyer for a pilot study from the Center for Reducing Health Disparities, at MetroHealth and Case Western Reserve University. Researchers there were studying whether specialized massage techniques could help breast cancer survivors with pain and mobility issues, and for Brady, the study worked.

“I would walk out of each session just feeling like a new person. It made such a huge difference, physically, mentally, emotionally,” she said. “I feel like if I hadn’t done the massage study, my recovery would have taken much, much longer.”

Brady’s physical troubles following breast cancer surgery aren’t unique. It’s common for women to have mobility issues, says massage therapist Jeanne Massingill, who developed the techniques used in the study.

“They’re not able to brush their hair, they can’t brush their teeth, they can’t wash their hair, they don’t have the strength anymore to open a jar,” Massingill said. “They can no longer do what they used to do. And that’s what happens after that surgery, which is why I became so passionate about it.”

Massingill developed the techniques more than 20 years ago when her friend had breast cancer, and she wanted to help. She specifically focuses on a type of massage therapy called myofascial release, which she says relieves pain around the scar tissue and surrounding areas.

Massingill’s friend felt much better after her massage therapy, and she referred other breast cancer survivors to Massingill. Eventually, local doctors began to hear about her techniques and wanted to learn more. Some health professionals called her up and said, “'We want to meet you. We want to see who you are.’ I was a little nervous. I thought am I going to lose my license? And they said, ‘Our girls are getting better. What are you doing?’”

A pilot study began, which is the one Jess Brady initially joined after seeing the flyer in her doctor’s office. Before the study, she was working as a cardiac technician, but after the study, she became a certified massage therapist.

Now, Brady is one of the massage therapists implementing these techniques in a larger, randomized control trial to test the effectiveness of myofascial release for improving mobility and pain among breast cancer survivors. The National Institutes of Health is funding the study.

The study’s lead researcher Dr. Ash Sehgal says there are a lot of women who have persistent issues that aren’t relieved by medication or physical therapy, so it’s important to find new ways to help.

“We found that there are a lot of women who are just so happy to be alive that they don’t necessarily bring up this problem with their doctors, so we think that doctors are underestimating the magnitude of this problem,” Sehgal said.

Sehgal says even if women learn about massage as a potential therapy option, it’s not available to everyone.

“Health insurance companies tend not to pay for massage treatment, so only people who can pay out of pocket are able to afford massage treatments,” he said.

Beth Bennett is with The Gathering Place, a nonprofit focused on helping people with cancer. Her organization is collaborating with the researchers because they often see women with long-term pain after radiation and breast cancer surgery.

“When you think about it, if somebody were to have an amputation of an arm or a leg, they would go through extensive rehab,” Bennett said. “Not just physically for that limb that they’ve lost, but psycho-socially, emotionally losing something. So when a women has a mastectomy, it is in a way, it’s an amputation. They’ve lost a part of their body.”

Massingill says anecdotally, she’s seen massage therapy bring some amount of normalcy to survivors’ lives. But anecdotes don’t convince health insurance companies to cover services.

That’s why she and the research team are hoping their study provides scientific evidence for whether massage therapy can benefit women after breast cancer surgery.




Researchers are still looking for study participants. If you want to learn more about the study, contact the study coordinator Mary Jo Day at 216-778-8456.

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