Acupuncture, Massage and Other Touch Therapies for Cancer Patients

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March 15, 2023

Cancer patients can greatly benefit from integrative (sometimes called “alternative”) therapies along with their medical treatments. Touch therapies like acupuncture, massage, manual lymphatic drainage, and reflexology can help with side effects of cancer treatment and also reduce pain and stress.

It is always important to talk to your doctor about any alternative therapy before starting it, as not all alternative therapies are recommended for all patients. Here is a list of Arizona Oncology Foundation’s approved touch therapies you can discuss with your doctor.


Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that has been used for thousands of years. Based on the concept of energy (chi or qi) passing through certain pathways in the body (meridians), acupuncture is believed to help re-balance energy flow in the body.

Acupuncture has been shown to help with a number of side effects of cancer treatment, including:

  • Nausea and indigestion
  • Diarrhea and constipation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fatigue
  • “Chemo brain”
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Pain
  • Sinus congestion
  • Hot flashes and night sweats
  • Joint and muscle stiffness

A trained acupuncture practitioner places very thin, delicate needles into specific areas of your skin. In many cases, you won’t feel them, but be prepared for a slight prick. The needles are left in place for a period of time while you relax. In some cases, mild electrical pulses are applied through the needles. You may have slight bleeding when the needles are removed.


Massage uses the power of touch for healing, applying pressure to soft tissues and pressure points throughout the body. While there are many types of massage, oncology massage therapists are trained to perform massage in a way that is safe and comfortable for cancer patients.

Many studies have found oncology massage to be helpful in combating:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Poor circulation
  • Reduced mobility

Massage can be a very comforting, relaxing, and therapeutic accompaniment to your treatment.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage

Manual lymphatic drainage is a special form of massage used to treat lymphedema. Lymph nodes damaged by cancer treatment can stop the normal flow of lymph in the body, causing fluid retention and symptoms like swelling, pain, heaviness, tightness and hardening of tissues.

Manual lymphatic drainage is a gentle, relaxing practice involving circular, upward movements that encourage healthy lymph flow. Because the targets of lymphatic drainage are just under the skin, this type of massage does not affect deep tissues. In this way, manual lymphatic drainage offers many of the same benefits as oncology massage.


Reflexology is a form of touch therapy applied to the feet. An ancient practice, its history is difficult to pinpoint, but the underlying theory is that specific areas of the feet are linked to certain organs or areas of the body. By applying pressure to “reflex areas”, the reflexologist works to remove energy blockages in the corresponding area of the body.

Reflexology has been shown to help with:

  • Circulation
  • Pain
  • Neuropathy
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Sore mouth
  • Skin reactions
  • Stress relief

Reflexology is not appropriate for all patients, including those at risk for deep vein thrombosis, or those with bruising or severe edema in the feet.


Reiki is a Japanese form of energy work where the practitioner uses his or her hands to convey universal energy to the patient. Many patients experience a subtle warmth, tingling, or sensation of pressure during reiki sessions and find it very comforting. Reiki can help with pain, anxiety, and side effects from cancer treatment. It can also help patients gain resilience in the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of facing cancer.

CranioSacral Therapy

CranioSacral therapy is a safe, noninvasive therapy that involves light touch applied to the bones of the head, sacrum (lower back), and spinal column. Through gentle compression (about the weight of a nickel), craniosacral therapy aims to release restrictions in the soft tissues around the nervous system. For cancer patients, it has been shown to:

  • Improve immune function
  • Decrease stress
  • Decrease side effects of pain, nausea, headaches, and fatigue
  • Increase tolerance of physical activity
  • Improve sleep
  • Zero Balancing

Developed by osteopathic physician Dr. Fritz Smith, zero balancing involves special touch aimed at balancing body structures and energy. Finger pressure and gentle traction are applied to bones, joints, and soft tissue, helping to release tensions deep in the body so it can relax and reorganize. Zero balancing has been shown to reduce stress, improve vitality, and adjust bone alignment. After a zero balancing session, you may feel lighter, freer, and more energized.

To learn more about alternative therapies and other support services that can help you in your cancer journey, speak with your doctor or contact the Arizona Oncology Foundation at 520-324-2840.