Massage for Pediatric Oncology Care

Imagine being a young child, going into the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. It will almost certainly be a confusing and distressful time. Pediatric patients may feel anxious while family members and caregivers may be overwhelmed and overcome by a sense of helplessness and worry. This kind of emotional distress is very likely, affects the psychosocial well-being of both the patients and the parents, and might affect the treatment outcomes.

Now imagine yourself as the parent, amidst this uncertainty and anxiety, receiving a simple massage that relaxes and comforts you. More importantly, imagine being the parent who can provide this bit of relief to their child.

Simple massage techniques can help ease the patient and also can provide the parent or caregiver with a useful skill to benefit the child, as shown by clinical research studies. The main benefits of massage for the patient appear to be stress reduction, relaxation, lowered anxiety levels, and reduced pain. Massage can even benefit the person giving the massage, and basic massage training may increase parental self-efficacy for managing a child’s psychosocial well-being and depressed mood that may result from the distress of undergoing treatment.

Psychological distress has a greater impact than may initially be apparent, in both pediatric patients and their caretakers. It may affect the ability of parents and caretakers to cope with the child’s symptoms, such as pain and nausea, and this makes it more difficult for them to help with symptom management. Sometimes, the psychological distress may not be immediately apparent. It can emerge in the form of anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms, and may stay for months or even years after the experience. According to prior research studies, 16 to 36 percent of young adult cancer survivors meet criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, and 22 percent of parents meet similar criteria four months after the child’s diagnosis. The development of posttraumatic stress can impact one’s immune response, which in turn may affect the treatment outcome.

Thus, interventions that help prevent or treat these adverse psychosocial effects are important.

The Osher Center is conducting a study to examine the feasibility and effects of providing massage to children who are undergoing bone marrow transplant at the Children’s Hospital at UCSF. The study also teaches the resident parents (those who are living in the hospital during the course of treatment) how to massage their children. The goal of this clinical trial is to improve symptom management in patients and decrease stress and feelings of helplessness in the parents. As helplessness contributes to the parent’s posttraumatic stress symptoms, we hope to be able to help the parent as well.

Initial reports from bone marrow transplant patients, their parents, and nursing staff on the bone marrow transplant unit, have been enthusiastic. One young boy, originally skeptical of massage, found that massage on an acupressure point for nausea worked “like magic.”In the coming months, Osher Center researchers will compare reports of symptom improvement to a group that does not get massage. If the results are promising, they will help pave the way for a larger-scale study with the potential to influence integration of massage and acupressure into standard care for these critically ill children.

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