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Massage therapists versed in lymph drainage massage are in a position to assist the growing population of women who have received breast cancer treatment. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be over 252,000 new cases of breast cancer in 2017, the most common type of cancer in the U.S., accounting for almost 155 of all new cancers.

It’s the most prevalent type of cancer, and the risk of developing it increases with age.

Incidence of Breast Cancer

The National Cancer Institute statistics review states that fewer than five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. are younger than 40. Rates begin to increase after age 40 and are highest in women over age 70.

Further, the median age of diagnosis of breast cancer for women in the U.S. is 61 years of age, according to the American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer Facts & Figures.

Caucasian women have a higher incident rates of breast cancer compared to African-American women, specifically between the age of 60 and 84; however, African-American women have a higher incidence rate before age 45 and are more likely to die from breast cancer at every age.

There are several ways breast cancer is treated, depending on the type and stage of the disease These include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy.

Side effects of these treatments include fatigue, headache, depression, anxiety, pain and numbness, lymphedema (chronic swelling of an arm cause by removing lymph nodes), axillary web syndrome, bone loss and osteoporosis, heart problems and more, according to the American Cancer Society.

Problems After Cancer Treatment

With so many women undergoing a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, massage therapists are well advised to learn about the hands-on care that can help this potential clientele, especially related to specific conditions they may present with.

Breast cancer patients often suffer late and long-term after-effects of treatments; in fact, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Statistics Review 1975–2014, close to 90 percent of breast cancer survivors report physical problems that can reduce functional ability, produce or exacerbate emotional problems, negatively affect body image, and diminish quality of life.

Based on my experience working with breast cancer survivors, pain and lymphedema are the most dreaded of the late side effects related to breast cancer treatment.

The Role of Lymph Drainage

A gentle, noninvasive therapy such as lymph drainage massage is an appropriate fit for the typical profile of a breast cancer patient and their unique long-term symptoms.

Lymphatic drainage is designed to deal with swelling and helps to reduce pain. (Having osteoporosis, either from cancer treatment or before the incidence of cancer, precludes deep pressure types of massage.)

Lymphedema is often the most dreaded complication of breast cancer treatment, along with pain and loss of range of motion. In addition, physical therapists and nurses are not trained in lymphatic drainage.

A massage therapist trained in lymphatic drainage is a valuable part of a cancer patient’s healthcare team. (I will note, however, that a more advanced credential is that held by therapists trained in Complete Decongestive Therapy, which includes the use of compression garments, bandages, exercise, self-care and manual lymphatic drainage.)

The light, supportive touch of a lymphatic drainage massage therapist will help breast cancer survivors deal with anxiety, pain, and difficulty of adjusting to life after treatment.

Lymphatic Massage Treatment

Lymphatic drainage for breast cancer patients focuses on reducing lymphatic congestion by increasing the rate of lymphatic flow. Techniques are applied to the upper body.

Light, gentle skin stretching strokes are used to stimulate the lymph nodes under the clavicle and contra-lateral side (non-swollen arm) of lymphedema occurrence. Some modalities, such as Bruno Chikly’s Lymph Drainage Therapy involve Lymphatic Mapping, redirecting the swelling in a limb to other nodes in the body that could absorb the extra fluid.

There are many schools of lymph drainage therapy, including the Dr. Vodder School International, the Chikly Health Institute and the Academy of Lymphatic Studies.

Emil Vodder, Ph.D. (1896–1986), and his wife, naturopath and massage therapist Estrid Vodder (1897–1996), developed the original method of manual lymphatic drainage. The original Vodder Institute was founded in France and now offers seminars around the world.

Bruno Chikly, M.D., D.O., L.M.T., a French osteopath, founded the Chikly institute in Florida to teach his method of lymph drainage therapy and also offers classes internationally.

Joachim Zuther, MLD/CDT Certified Instructor, was trained in manual lymph therapy in Germany, and founded the Academy Lymphatic Studies in 1994, in Florida.

Additionally, many massage schools and continuing education providers offer training in lymphatic drainage massage.

When to Perform Lymphatic Drainage

You should only perform lymphatic drainage massage on breast cancer patients and survivors after a physician has cleared her for therapy,

Unfortunately, the complications of breast cancer treatments are ongoing and require supportive care to manage the conditions that appear. Like most forms of bodywork, the best results of lymph drainage massage are seen from multiple sessions on an ongoing basis.

For more information, read “An Overview of Manual Lymphatic Drainage for Lymphodema” and “6 Essential Oils for Lymphatic Drainage Massage.”

About the Author

Ivan Garay, L.M.T., is New Jersey certified massage therapist, New York State licensed massage therapist, and adjunct faculty at the New York College of Health Professions. He is trained in Myoskeletal Alignment, lymphatic drainage therapy, craniosacral therapy, trigger point therapy, Rock Tape and sports massage. He has more than 16 years’ experience in the massage field, and attended the Upledger Institute and learned the Bruno Chikly technique of lymphatic therapy. He developed the course, Lymphatic Drainage for Breast Cancer Survivors, for massage therapists.


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Shannon Nettles

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