Body-Based Therapies

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Body-based therapies incorporate manual movement of various body parts and other externally applied methods to relieve pain of the bones and joints, the soft tissues, and the circulatory and lymphatic systems of the body. Examples include massage therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture.

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Body-based therapies aim to free the body from pain and discomfort by using different approaches that generally involve some sort of gentle external force. For example, massage therapists use their hands to apply gentle pressure to tense muscles to relax them, and chiropractors use manual techniques to improve bone and muscle pain.

Patients electing to add these therapies to their treatment plan should work with licensed health professionals and must explain their cancer diagnosis to the alternative health care provider. The type and stage of cancer a person is coping with may affect the treatment plan and how the therapy is administered.

Symptom Relief

Many cancer patients who experience symptoms such as pain, stress and anxiety try to find relief by means of complementary and alternative treatments. Body-based therapies can help relieve a number of symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatments, including:

  • Arthritis or joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Lower back pain
  • Migraines
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Nausea or vomiting

The most popular body-focused therapies used by cancer patients include TENS therapy, acupuncture and acupressure, chiropractic care and therapeutic massage.

TENS Therapy

TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) is a type of alternative therapy that uses low-voltage electrical current to relieve pain. TENS therapists attach electrodes, which are wires that conduct electrical current, from a small battery pack to the skin, usually where the patient is experiencing pain or at a certain pressure point. Electrical pulses are then sent through nerve fibers in the body, which can minimize pain.

TENS Therapy

The electrical stimulation of TENS therapy may relive pain by sending signals to the brain to produce endorphins, which are natural chemicals produced by the body that transmit electrical signals within the nervous system and create feelings of euphoria. It is also possible that the electrical stimulation can stimulate the nerves and send signals to the brain that then block pain signals, thereby relieving pain.

A 2015 study found that TENS therapy significantly relieved cancer-related pain for roughly 70 percent of participants.

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Administration of TENS Therapy

TENS therapy treatments are usually administered by a medical professional who will work with cancer patients in controlling the machine to make sure the electrodes are comfortable and the setting is adequate for the condition being treated. TENS should not hurt or make a patient uncomfortable.

Patients may also elect to administer their own TENS therapy at home. A TENS therapy professional will help treat pain initially, as well as work with the body to find the right placement of electrodes. From this point, patients can control the battery pack. The medical professional will prescribe a certain routine, usually to use the battery pack several times every day for short intervals.

TENS therapy is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and many insurance policies will cover the treatment. If a doctor prescribes the treatment, most health insurance providers should fully cover the expenses. This is not always the case with some other kinds of alternative therapies.

There are few side effects to this type of treatment, and those who are taking prescriptions or dealing with other medical conditions are safe to undergo TENS therapy. However, patients with a pacemaker should not use TENS therapy, as it may interfere with its operation. Pregnant patients should also consult with their doctor before using this therapy.


Acupuncture was practiced as early as the Stone Age as an anesthetic during surgery in China and has since become more widely respected, even to the extent that many insurance companies now cover acupuncture treatment.

The needles are lightly applied to the body’s defined pressure points. There are about 400 total pressure points in the body, and the points that are stimulated during an acupuncture session may not be in the area where a patient feels pain. For example, a patient who is receiving acupuncture treatment for headaches may actually be treated in the area between the thumb and palm.

Quick Fact:

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment in which thin needles of varying lengths are inserted into the skin to relieve pain and stress built up in the body. Heat, pressure or electricity may be added to the needles to intensify the effects of acupuncture.

Acupuncture for Cancer Patients

When it comes to the treatment of asbestos-related cancers, acupuncture is one of the most widely accepted alternative therapies. Those coping with asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, can use acupuncture to treat stress, pain and anxiety. Some patients with asbestosis who have tried acupuncture say the treatment helps relieve pain and makes breathing easier. The World Health Organization reports that acupuncture can relieve adverse reactions to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Studies show that acupuncture combines well with traditional cancer treatments.

  • Researchers at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research conducted a 2013 study that found auricular (ear) acupuncture significantly reduced the intensity of pain felt by cancer patients over a two-month period.

  • A 2006 analysis of 11 studies suggests that acupuncture may reduce vomiting shortly after a chemotherapy treatment, a common side effect of this type of treatment.

  • There is also evidence suggesting that the effects of acupuncture may lessen the need for pain killers, and acupuncture may help relieve mouth dryness in patients whose salivary glands were damaged as a side effect of radiation therapy.

Acupuncture treatments are particularly desirable because in most cases, when practiced by a skilled acupuncturist, there are few adverse reactions or side effects. Around 3 percent of patients may experience some minor bleeding at points where needles were inserted. Around 2 percent of patients may experience some bruising at the site, while approximately 1 percent may experience some dizziness (usually as a result of anxiety relating to the treatment).

Quick Fact:

People with bleeding disorders and those taking blood thinners are advised to avoid acupuncture. In addition, those with infusion pumps, cardiac pacemakers or any other electrical device are advised to avoid electroacupuncture.


Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but it uses finger pressure instead of needles to stimulate acupuncture points. Scientific research shows that acupressure helps cancer patients cope with nausea, vomiting, pain, fatigue and anxiety. For example, certain acupressure points, such as the point between your thumb and palm, help cancer patients cope with pain and nausea.

A 2000 study published in Oncology Nursing Forum reported significant anxiety reduction among lung cancer patients who received reflexology, a form of acupressure applied to the feet.

Mesothelioma patient Mary M. found alleviation of chemotherapy-induced digestion issues and significant fatigue relief using an acupressure system called Jin Shin Jyutsu.

Jin Shin Jyutsu

Jin Shin Jyutsu (JSJ) is a healing technique that aims to bring the body’s life-force energy into harmony. The therapy originated in Japan and is likened to acupuncture. In both therapies, a practitioner touches points throughout the body to improve bodily function.

Jin Shin Jyutsu identifies about a dozen energy pathways and more than 50 points throughout the body. Gently touching these points in various patterns reportedly resolves different ailments and clears energy blocks. Anyone can learn to practice JSJ on their own, or they can receive JSJ therapy from a trained practitioner.

A study on women with breast cancer who received JSJ found that the therapy helped participants adapt to life with cancer and improved performance of daily living activities. A 2010 study on stroke patients found that JSJ was more effective at reducing heart rate than a placebo.

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Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care is administered to treat and prevent pain and disorders pertaining to the musculoskeletal system that controls the body’s movement, including the spine. Chiropractic care is often sought as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to coincide with traditional medical treatments.

Chiropractors seek to restore mobility and alleviate pain through a variety of different treatments such as spinal adjustment, massage, stretching movements, ultrasound, specific exercises and electrical muscle stimulation.

Chiropractic Care for Cancer Patients

Cancer patients may elect to visit a chiropractor as part of their treatment regimen. According to the American Chiropractic Association, chiropractic doctors have a deep respect for the human body’s ability to heal itself without the use of surgery or medication. These doctors devote careful attention to the biomechanics, structure and function of the spine, its effects on the musculoskeletal and neurological systems, and the role played by the proper function of these systems in the preservation and restoration of health.

Chiropractor working on a patient

Cancer patients have included chiropractic care in their course of treatment to help control pain and alleviate headaches, tension and stress. Patients interested in alternative treatment who strongly believe in the body’s ability to heal naturally may find chiropractic care particularly appealing. Alleviating severe headaches and movement pains during cancer treatment may make the treatment process more comfortable for cancer patients, including those batting mesothelioma.

Two studies published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics examined the cases of two patients combating cancer. A 57-year-old man diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer experienced significant pain relief and was able to reduce the amount of medication needed following chiropractic care. He also reported an increase in his quality of life.

A 54-year-old man diagnosed with lung cancer began seeing a chiropractor after experiencing little pain relief one year after he underwent surgery. The man experienced pain relief immediately after beginning chiropractic care and discontinued use of all pain medications after two visits to his chiropractor.

Possible Side Effects of Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care is associated with certain risks and side effects. Spinal manipulation causes mild discomfort, pain, headaches or tiredness for roughly 24 hours in 25 percent to 50 percent of people who try chiropractic care.

The British Medical Journal reports that risk of stroke from neck manipulation is low: Only one to three out of every one million people is at risk of this complication.

Therapeutic Massage

Though some perceive massage as a luxurious way of relaxing, massage therapy can actually be a form of medical treatment. This holistic form of alternative therapy focuses on preventative health as well as healing present medical issues.

Massage therapy

A number of health benefits are associated with massage. First and foremost, this form of treatment promotes healthy blood flow. Massage helps blood vessels dilate, which increases and promotes blood flow. In addition, massage also helps to relieve muscle tension. This treatment can help to loosen muscles that are tense and tight, as well as stimulate muscles that are weak, which makes massage therapy a great option for those with chronic muscle tension.

Massage can help with quite a few other conditions. This therapy stimulates the nervous system, improves skin function and helps relieve chronic pain. Massage is also known to benefit the digestive system by means of increasing the body’s production of gastric juices and saliva, which promotes healthy digestion.

Massage for Cancer Patients

Cancer can be especially hard on the body and even though treatments options, such as chemotherapy and radiation, are designed to treat the cancer, they can also take a toll on the body, causing pain and fatigue, among other side effects. Massage therapy for cancer patients is one way of easing such side effects.

There are dozens of categories of massage, but not all are appropriate for cancer patients. Certain conditions may be worsened by deep pressure or physical manipulation commonly used in deep tissue massage or sports massage. Cancer patients should consult a doctor who can help them find a practitioner who specializes in the type of massage best used for their condition and prognosis.

There are a number of massage techniques that may benefit cancer patients, including aromatherapy massage, cupping, hot stone massage, reflexology and gentle massage. Before committing to a certain therapy session, take some time to consult with the massage therapist to ensure the techniques used will be right for the condition being treated.

According to the American Cancer Society, several studies of massage specifically designed for cancer patients suggest that it can significantly decrease common symptoms of cancer and its treatment, including pain, stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue. This is one reason why many health care professionals recognize massage as a useful, noninvasive addition to standard medical treatment. Therapeutic massage is most often given by trained massage therapists, but caregivers can also be trained in safe massage techniques.

Lymphatic Massage

Lymph drainage therapy is a technique used after cancer surgery that helps relieve fluid buildup in lymph nodes. When enough lymph fluid collects in a particular spot, swelling can arise. This condition is often referred to as lymphedema, which typically develops in the arms and legs. There is no cure, but a lymphatic massage can help control progression and release fluid pressure.

A lymphatic massage can be a valuable treatment option for anyone with lymphedema as a primary or secondary condition. Because pleural mesothelioma develops near lymph nodes and the cancer may actually spread to them, a patient’s flow of lymphatic fluid may be disrupted. If the lymph nodes are removed or partially damaged during surgery or radiation treatment, the flow of fluid will naturally be obstructed.

A lymphatic massage is a gentle massage intended to stimulate the flow of lymphatic fluid, improve metabolism and boost the immune system. It can effectively reduce swelling from excess lymph fluid, which can happen after certain surgeries. If lymphatic fluid slows down or becomes blocked, people can feel tired and be susceptible to sickness. The goal of the lymphatic massage is to promote circulation of lymphatic fluid by releasing the buildup. By having lymph node blockages cleared, a patient generally feels stronger and healthier.

All lymphatic massages should be performed by a specialized therapist. A massage includes gentle movements towards the direction of the lymph nodes and proper technique is very important. Circular motions with the fingertips are typically used during the massage. If the massage is for a specific area, it can take less than an hour to complete.

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Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at
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7 Cited Article Sources

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  2. Ma, L. (2009). Acupuncture as a complementary therapy in chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Retrieved from:
  3. WHO. (2003). Acupuncture: Review and analysis of reports on controlled clinical trials. Retrieved from:
  4. Stephenson, N., et al. (2000). The effects of foot reflexology on anxiety and pain in patients with breast and lung cancer. Retrieved from:
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  6. Loh, J., & Gulati, A. (2015). The use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) in a major cancer center for the treatment of severe cancer-related pain and associated disability. Retrieved from:
  7. Sagar, S., et al. (2007). Massage therapy for cancer patients: A reciprocal relationship between body and mind. Retrieved from:

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Last Modified July 24, 2019

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