MassageHokum and snake oil? Or an important part of a holistic approach to cancer treatment?

Complementary therapy has an uneasy reputation within the medical profession, thanks in part to the difficulty of carrying out scientifically sound clinical trials of the treatments.

While there is no data to suggest that complementary therapies can cure cancer, there is a growing body of research-based evidence to show that some therapies can improve a patient’s quality of life, alongside conventional cancer treatment.

One piece of evidence comes in the form of a recent paper from Professor Amanda Ramirez, director of the Cancer Research UK London Psychosocial Oncology Group. She’s been carrying out a trial to investigate the short and long-term benefits of aromatherapy massage for people undergoing cancer treatment.

The researchers found that patients given four sessions of massage had measurably lower levels of depression and anxiety, compared to those who received none. But the benefits lasted only two weeks and didn’t persist in the long term. However, even a short-term improvement in the wellbeing of a person with cancer is still an improvement, and warrants further investigation.

These results also stand up to scientific scrutiny. Not only is Professor Ramirez’s trial randomised , but the team ended up with more than 100 patients in each trial arm – enough to make the results statistically significant. Carrying out robust trials of complementary treatments will always be difficult – for example, how do you give a placebo massage? But research such as this will help to prove the benefits of certain therapies to potentially sceptical doctors.


Hear more about complementary therapy in the March Cancer Research UK podcast.

Read the abstract of the paper.

More information on complementary and alternative therapy for people with cancer from CancerHelp UK.