Debbie Nicholson

New research provides compelling evidence for reflexology aiding cancer patients

This is the first large-scale, randomized study of reflexology as a complement to standard cancer treatment to evaluate its safety and effectiveness.

Reflexology is an ancient practice that was possibly first recorded as a pictograph on the Egyptian tomb of Ankhamor in 2330 BC along with other medical procedures. Reflexology is the application of appropriate pressure to specific points and areas of the feet, hands or ears. Today reflexologist can be found at many hospitals and cancer centers throughout the United States such as Memorial Sloan’s-Kettering’s Cancer Center and Children’s Memorial Hospital.

View slideshow: Reflexolgy and conditions

Dr. Gwen Wyatt, PhD, RN, professor in the College of Nursing Michigan State University and lead author of study stated "This is the first step toward moving a complementary therapy from fringe care to mainstream care."

This new study involved 385 predominantly Caucasian women with advanced stage breast cancer (has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body most often the bones, lungs or liver) that were receiving chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy.

The women were randomized into three primary groups; reflexology (95) lay foot manipulation on the left foot (95) or conventional care (96). Two preliminary reflexology test groups (reflexology 51 women and lay foot manipulation 48 women were used to establish the protocols. All participants were interviewed about their symptoms at intake then again at five and eleven weeks.

The researchers had found those women in the reflexology group had significantly less dyspnea (shortness of breath) a common symptom in breast cancer patients and saw significant improvements in physical functioning such as stair climbing or grocery shopping.

Dr. Wyatt had said she was surprised to find reflexology’s effects appeared to be primarily physical and not psychological. She commented "We didn't get the change we might have expected with the emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression.” “The most significant changes were documented with the physical symptoms."

Also found unexpected to the researchers was the reduced fatigue reported by those who received the "placebo" foot massage, particularly since the reflexology group did not show similarly significant improvement. With that in mind Dr. Wyatt is now researching if massage similar to reflexology given by friends or family of cancer patients as opposed to a certified reflexologist, may be a simple and inexpensive option.

Reduced pain and nausea was not witnessed by reflexology however, Wyatt points out it could be due to the drugs for combating those symptoms are generally quite effective so the women may not have reported them to begin with.

In their conclusion researchers write “Reflexology may be added to existing evidence-based supportive care to improve HRQOL (health-related quality of life) for patients with advanced-stage breast cancer during chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy.

This study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and appears in the latest issue of Oncology Nursing Forum.

Reflexology can be adjusted to meet the needs of cancer patients. Deep pressure and vigorous manipulation of the foot should be avoided during times of active treatment for cancer, or if there is swelling in the foot or lower leg. Reflexology will not be used on known tumor sites or lumps that may be cancerous. Those who have cancer that has spread to the bone or fragile bones should not receive this treatment due to the risk of fracture.

More information on reflexology and cancer can be viewed online at the Cancer Research UK website.