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A common complication after surgery is edema. “Lymphedema is basically the backup of lymph fluid frequently caused by scarring and swelling in the area. Massage helps move the fluid through the whole lymph system.” This kind of massage requires specialized training, said Dr. Julie Gralow, a professor of medical oncology at the University of Washington and director of breast medical oncology at SCCA.

What causes lymphedema?

Any change in the structure of the lymph system puts a person at risk for lymphedema.

Surgery: During surgery for cancer the doctor may take out lymph nodes near the tumor to see if the cancer has spread. Lymph vessels may also be removed because they are wrapped around the lymph nodes. Taking out lymph nodes and vessels makes it harder for the fluid in the arms, legs, or other body parts to flow to the chest where it can get back into the bloodstream. If the remaining lymph vessels cannot remove enough of the fluid in the area, the excess fluid builds up and causes swelling.

Radiation: Radiation treatment can affect the flow of lymph fluid by scarring the lymph nodes and vessels; this increases the risk for lymphedema, too.

Cancer: Sometimes, a tumor itself can block part of the lymph system and cause lymphedema.

Infection: Infections that restrict lymph flow can cause lymphedema.

Up to 25 percent of breast cancer patients whose surgery includes removal of lymph nodes in the area of the armpit eventually develop lymphedema. This is one reason breast cancer patients benefits from lymphatic massages, but also any cancer and surgical patients will equally benefit from lymphatic massage techniques.

Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is part your immune system. The lymph (blood plasma and white blood cells) circulates through the body tissues transporting debris and toxins from tissue to the lymph nodes. Numerous substances (electrolytes, proteins, hormones, toxins, debris) and immuno-competent cells (lymphocytes, macrophages) pass through the regional lymph nodes, where this fluid is filtered, purified and concentrated.

Lymphatic drainage massage is a profound technique to help increase lymph flow. With an increase of lymph flow immune function is increased. Harmful substances are removed from the tissues and neutralized in the nodes. It has also been shown that an increase in lymph flow stimulates an increased production of lymphocytes-enhancing immune function.

In a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research [3], the Touch Research Institute found that massage therapy reduced anxiety and depression. It also improved immune function, including increased NK cell number in breast cancer patients. Additionally, breast cancer patients have improved immune functions following massage therapy. A study by Ferrel-Torry & Glick [4] found that therapeutic massage reduced cancer pain perception by an average of 60 percent, decreased anxiety by 24 percent and enhanced relaxation by 58 percent. One 2003 study [5] of 230 cancer patients found that those who received one 45-minute therapeutic massage session per week for a month felt less pain and took about eight fewer doses of pain medication than those in the control group.

The applications of Lymphatic Therapy for cancer and surgical patients are numerous: [6]

- Circulation of lymph, blood capillaries, veins, interstitial liquids and cerebrospinal and synovial fluids (in-directly) is activated. This action helps to reroute stagnant fluid in the skin (i.e., edema, primary and secondary lymphedema), mucosa, muscles, viscera, joints, cranial sutures, periosteum, chambers of the eyes and cochlea.

- Toxins are removed, making lymphatic drainage especially effective in tissue regeneration. Scars, stretch marks, wrinkles and fracture, or surgical-incision sites, are improved. Many therapists also use it as part of detoxification and anti-aging regimens.

- Macromolecules (proteins) are drained, which helps to eliminate protein-rich fluid from the extracellular tissues and aid the reabsorption of edema.

- Fats are evacuated through lymphatic vessels. These vessels are located in virtually every area of the body where fats may accumulate.

- The functioning of the immune system is stimulated through increased lymph flow. The additional flow carries more antigens to the lymph nodes, thereby increasing antibody/antigen contact. This has been found to help with chronic or subacute inflammatory processes -- chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disease, bronchitis, sinusitis, amygdalitis, tonsillitis, laryngitis, arthritis, acne and eczema.

- The functioning of the parasympathetic system is bolstered and sympathetic tone is diminished with stimulation of the lymphatics -- the "fight or flight" response. This can be very helpful in dealing with stress, depression and sleeping disorders.

- Chronic pain is reduced as the drainage alleviates tissue-fluid stagnation and possibly inhibits nociceptors (pain receptors).


1 American Cancer Society
3 Touch Research Institute at The University of Miami
4 The use of therapeutic massage as a nursing intervention to modify anxiety and the perception of cancer pain. By Ferrell-Torry AT, Glick OJ.
5 Therapeutic Massage and Healing Touch Improve Symptoms in Cancer. By Janice Post-White, RN, PhD, FAAN, Mary Ellen Kinney, RN, BA, CHTP, Kay Savik, MS, Joanna Berntsen Gau, RN, MS, Carol Wilcox, RN, MS, and Irving Lerner, MD
6, a public education site powered by Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.
7 World Cancer Research Fund International.


The World Cancer Research Fund, as result of an expert report published in 2007, indicated that women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol, being physically active and breastfeeding their children. These modifications might prevent 38% of breast cancers in the US. [7]

>> Click here to read the Panel’s 10 recommendations for cancer prevention.

American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention

For most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are body weight, diet, and physical activity. One-third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year are linked to diet and physical activity, including being overweight or obese, while another third is caused by tobacco products. [7]

>>Click here to open the American Cancer Society Guidelines document


Although our genes influence our risk of cancer, most of the difference in cancer risk between people is due to factors that are not inherited. Avoiding tobacco products, staying at a healthy weight, staying active throughout life, and eating a healthy diet may greatly reduce a person's lifetime risk of developing or dying from cancer. These same behaviors are also linked with a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.[1]


It's well known that chronically high levels of stress hormones (like adrenaline) suppress the immune system and reduce the body's ability to defend or repair itself. That's why many cancer centers and hospitals have begun offering stress reduction therapy along with traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Meditation, visualization, yoga, and other relaxation techniques may help bolster your immune system and assist in fighting the effects of the cancer.[2]