Body-based therapies

Friday 1 May, 2015

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On this page: Aromatherapy | Yoga | Massage | Acupuncture | Energy therapies | Reflexology | Tai chi | Qi gong | Other active exercise techniques

Body-based practices, including energy therapies, can be divided into two categories:
  • Passive bodywork techniques

    Include therapies where some form of touch or manual pressure is applied to your body or the unseen energy field surrounding your body. Examples include aromatherapy, massage and reflexology.

  • Active exercise techniques

    Require you to actively undertake a series of movements to stimulate and stretch different parts of the body. Examples include yoga, tai chi and Pilates.


The benefits of body-based practices include reducing tension, anxiety, insomnia, pain, and increasing energy, vitality, quality of life and wellbeing. Exercise, even if gentle, can also improve stamina, muscle tone (strength), flexibility and agility.

The exercise techniques described have a strong mind-body connection too, so they benefit both physical and emotional health.

Body-based practices are also called bodywork or physical, manual, tactile, touch, manipulative or exercise therapies. Techniques involving energy work are sometimes called energy therapies.

Types of body-based practices

While the practitioners of body-based practices have differing techniques, they all aim to help people heal both physically and mentally, and tailor treatments to each person's specific needs.


What it is

This is the use of aromatic essential oils extracted from plants for healing relaxation. They're used mainly during massage but can also be used in baths, inhalations or vaporisers (oil burners).

Why use it

When inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the oil stimulates positive effects on different systems in the body.

What to expect

The aromatherapist blends essential oils and adds them to a base (carrier) oil to apply to your skin during a massage.The oils may also be used in an oil burner. Different blends have different effects on your moods or any symptoms you're experiencing, such as fatigue, pain, sleeplessness or nausea. If you find a particular aroma is unpleasant, let your therapist know.


Some studies have shown that aromatherapy reduces anxiety in people with cancer. Studies in people with advanced cancer also show aromatherapy improves quality of life by aiding sleep.  

Oils used in bodywork

Base oils and essential oils may be used in bodywork. Base (or carrier) oils allow the therapist to work on the skin easily. They're usually made from kernels or nuts, such as almonds. Some therapists use mineral oil as it's odourless.

Essential oils, such as lavender or tea tree, can be added to base oils. They shouldn't be swallowed or used directly on the skin undiluted.

Different blends of essential oils are suitable for different moods and energy levels, and may help a range of ailments, such as difficulty with sleeping. 

Problems from oils are rare, but some people find they irritate the skin or the smell makes them feel nauseous. Let your therapist know if you've had reactions to oils in the past, or if you start to feel discomfort during a massage.


What it is

Yoga involves performing poses with the body, slowing and deepening the breath, and focusing the mind. Yoga originated in India but is now popular around the world. There are many styles of yoga with varying intensity – from gentle, such as hatha yoga to vigorous, such as ashtanga yoga/Iyengar. Some styles may not be suitable during some stages of cancer.

Why use it

It helps both physical and emotional health.

What to expect

Wear comfortable clothes. You may be asked to remove your shoes before entering the yoga room. You usually need a yoga mat – this may be available in class.

Most classes last for 1 to 2 hours. A typical routine involves focusing on quietening the mind and working with the breath.

A session usually begins with warm-up stretches followed by a series of different yoga postures and relaxation at the end of a class.

If you're new to yoga, it's recommended you start with a beginner class. Always let your yoga teacher know of any health problems you have or treatments you're receiving so they can adjust postures and exercises to suit your needs. You can also seek advice from your medical team.


Clinical research has shown yoga may improve sleep, decrease stress and enhance quality of life. The focus on breathing may also help reduce pain.

Books, DVDs and videos are useful if you don't have access to a yoga class or you want to do yoga at home.


What it is

Massage involves moving (manipulating) muscles and rubbing or stroking soft tissues of the body.

Why use it

There are many styles of massage. They all aim to promote deep relaxation in tissue by applying pressure to the muscles and pressure points of the body. This helps release both muscular and emotional tension. Some types of massage can reduce lymphoedema (swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid) - this is called lymphatic drainage.

What to expect

The therapist uses a variety of strokes on different parts of the body. When performing massage on a person with cancer, therapists need to adjust their pressure and avoid certain areas of the body. Some styles of massage are done with you fully clothed. Others usually require you to undress to your underwear so the therapist can use oil to move their hands over your skin more easily.


Many scientific studies have shown massage can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and nausea in people who've had chemotherapy or surgery for cancer.  

Get more information in Massage and Cancer (PDF 620KB).


What it is

Acupuncturists put fine, sterile needles just under the skin into meridians (energy channels) in the body. Each meridian as many acupuncture points along its path.

Why use it

Acupuncture is based on the theory that the placement of needles into certain poins of the body unblocks and moves qi (energy) to strengthen vital force and reduce physical and emotional symptoms. The exact mechanism of acupuncture remains largely unclear. However, evidence indicates that needles may stimulate nerves to release the body’s own natural chemicals, which help reduce pain or regulate the brain and other functions.

What to expect

After a consultation, which may include tongue and pulse analysis, the practitioner gently positions sterile needles into points on your body. The needles are left in place for 30 seconds to 30 minutes, and may be turned. You may feel a tingling or dull aching sensation, but shouldn't feel pain.

Acupuncturists may also implant and cover special needles, which can remain in place for several days. These needles can be pressed to relieve some symptoms, such as insomnia or nausea.


The main areas of research into acupuncture for cancer are chemotherapy-related nausea and cancer pain, and some clinical trials have shown promising results. Anecdotal evidence suggests acupuncture is relaxing and reduces anxiety.

Some qualified and registered acupuncturists in Australia have special training and experience in treating cancer-related conditions. Ask your doctor whether this is offered at your treatment centre.

Energy therapies

What they are

These therapies are founded on the concept that all living beings have an energy field around them and flowing through them, and that this field can be altered or disturbed in association with illness. Energy therapies aim to restore balance to assist in healing. Techniques include: 

  • Bowen therapy
  • polarity therapy
  • reiki
  • healing touch
  • therapeutic touch.
Why use them

Energy therapies are often used by people with cancer, as they're very gentle and don't require the therapist to make many adjustments. The aim is to help increase energy levels, promote relaxation and wellbeing, and assist in overall healing.

What to expect

Usually a client sits or lies down fully clothed. The therapist may gently touch you or may hold their hands slightly above your body. The aim is to use their own healing energy to identify energy imbalances and promote health. This may generate a feeling of warmth.

Sometimes therapists perform different moves on or above the body – these are believed to stimulate the flow of energy. The session is usually very restful.


Clinical research has not proven the idea of an energy field within or surrounding the body. However personal stories (anecdotal evidence) show energy therapies provide a deep sense of calm and relaxation, often helping to relieve pain and anxiety, reduce stiffness and improve posture.


What it is

A form of foot and hand massage. Reflexologists believe that certain points on the feet and hands correspond to the body's internal organs and systems, like a map.

Why use it

Many people find reflexology relaxing. Practitioners believe that by pressing on reflex points, meridians are unblocked and healthy changes can occur in the corresponding parts of the body.

What to expect

After talking through your case history, you remove your footwear and lie down. The reflexologist works with their hands on your bare feet, possibly using cream or oil. Usually reflexology feels like a relaxing foot massage, although sometimes the therapist's touch can be subtle.


Several clinical trials have looked at using reflexology to help with cancer symptoms such as pain, nausea and anxiety. Results are mixed and studies have involved small groups of people, so it is difficult to say whether the reflexology had any effect.

Tai chi

What it is

This is a part of traditional Chinese medicine that combines movement, breathing techniques and meditation. Movements create stability in the body, reflecting an ancient Chinese concept of balance known as ‘yin and yang'.

Why use it

Breath work is calming and meditative, while creating and holding the poses helps loosen and strengthen the muscles.

What to expect

If your class is indoors, you'll probably do tai chi in bare feet, and there will be serene music playing. The class usually starts with warm-up exercises. You'll be shown different moves and helped to perform them. The instructor may use names to describe the poses, e.g. ‘white crane raises its wings'. The movements are simple to start with, then become progressively harder, with many parts of the body needing to move to achieve the pose. Classes end with cooling down and relaxation.


Studies have shown that tai chi improves quality of life, balance, agility, flexibility and muscle tone in cancer survivors. It can also help reduce stress. 

Qi gong

What it is

Qi gong – pronounced ‘chee goong' – is also part of traditional Chinese medicine. ‘Qi' means one's life energy, and ‘gong' means work. It combines movement with controlled breathing and meditation.

Why use it

Movements performed in qi gong keep the flow of energy running through the body's energy channels. This can help generate a sense of wellbeing and peace, as well as improving both mental and physical vitality.

What to expect

Wear comfortable clothes. Participants start with warm-up exercises to loosen the body. The instructor then guides you through a series of slow movements, which can range from very basic to complex. The exercises, which are usually very calming, help you become more aware of your energy.

Classes might also include some meditation while you're lying down, sitting, standing or walking.


Clinical trials suggest qi gong improves quality of life and reduces fatigue. Anecdotal evidence suggests it helps reduce anxiety and improves general fitness.

'Qi gong was very calming and made me more aware of the energy in my body. I found it easier to learn than tai chi so I was able to do it at home as well as going to classes.'
Margaret (breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma)

Other active exercise techniques 

There are other exercise techniques you might like to explore. Although studies involving people with cancer are limited, these therapies are generally accepted as being beneficial for improving strength, flexibility, mobility, fitness and general wellbeing.

Some treatment centres will have exercise physiologists and physiotherapists who are specially trained in exercise interventions for people with medical conditions and injuries. 

  • Alexander technique

    Although not a type of exercise, this approach to balance and wellbeing in mind and body teaches people to be aware of the way they move and hold themselves. By changing the way people use their body, they can enhance their mental and physical functioning on many levels.

  • Feldenkrais

    This method helps people become more aware of the way they move and how this contributes to, or compensates for, bad posture, pain and mobility restrictions. By gently retraining the mind and body to be open to new possibilities in movement, people find ways to become freer and more comfortable.

  • Strength training or lifting weights (resistance training)

    This active exercise technique is growing in popularity, particularly for people who've had treatment for breast cancer. Also called strength training, it involves the use of weights, weight machines at gyms and your own body weight to strengthen muscles. Research shows that breast cancer survivors with lymphoedema who participate in a supervised weightlifting program are less likely to experience worsening symptoms than people who do not do strength training.

  • Pilates

    A program that encourages the mind to be aware of its control over the muscles. Using awareness of your breath and posture, Pilates helps to strengthen core muscles and correct postural habits that have contributed to pain, reduced mobility and poor coordination.

  • Cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise

    This has been shown to be highly beneficial for people with cancer. It has important benefits during treatment as it may reduce the onset of side effects and their severity, maintain mood and improve energy levels. Cardiovascular exercise also helps people maintain muscle mass (strength). Studies are being conducted into its impact on recurrence (relapse) and survival in people with certain types of cancer.

    YWCA encore is a free eight-week program of gentle exercise and relaxation for people who've had breast cancer.  

Reviewed by: Dr Haryana Dhillon, Research Fellow, Survivorship Research Group, Deputy Director, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, University of Sydney, and Chair, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia Survivorship Group, NSW; Dr Kylie Dodsworth, GP, VicePresident, Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, SA; Lauren Muir, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Shavita Patel, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Evelin Tiralongo, Lecturer and Researcher in Complementary Medicine, School of Pharmacy, Griffith University, QLD; Gabrielle Toth, Consumer; Dr Xiaoshu Zhu, Director, Academic Program for Chinese Medicine, Senior Lecturer, School of Science and Health, and Researcher, National Institute of Complementary Medicine, University of Western Sydney, NSW.

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