Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine in which volatile plant oils, known as essential oils, is used. The oils used are concentrated essences taken from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves, root or bark of certain plants.
Aromatic medicine, forerunner to aromatherapy, was recorded in both Egypt and India more than 4,000 years age. The Egyptians used aromatic plants to create massage oils, skin care products, embalming preparations, medicines, fragrant perfumes and cosmetics.
Plant aromatics were also utilised in India as part of the ancient medical practice known as Ayurveda. Many of these practices are still in existence today.
There are more than 400 essential oils; some are used to make cosmetics or perfumes, and others are used in healing. Aromatherapy has been used in conjunction with nutritional therapy for centuries, offering both a back-up to recovery and a treatment in itself!
Holistic aromatherapy uses oils have different healing effects on the body. Many of these properties overlap so several oils can be used to treat one condition. Only a few of these oils are commonly used in people with cancer.
Each essential oil has its own properties that may give health benefits, e.g. lavender can help with insomnia, and can relieve muscle tension and anxiety.
Essential oils produce a range effects which can include: calming, stimulating, balancing, detoxifying, tonifying, grounding and uplifting. They can be antiviral, antibacterial, analgesic, antiseptic, and antidepressant.
How Aromatherapy Works
There are two ways in which aromatherapy works; it is directly absorbed through the skin when applied to the skin in diluted form and via your olfactory nerve cells, which means through smell.
When essential oil is absorbed through the skin, it travels around individual cells and into the hair follicles. The oils enter the sebaceous glands and mingle with the skin’s natural emollients. Essential oils can leave your skin feeling cleansed, refreshed and toned.
All food, flowers, plants and perfumes release tiny molecules into the air which stimulate your olfactory nerve cells which then send a message to your brain to interpret what the smell is.
The impression of the aroma is then sent directly to the Limbic system in the centre of the brain, where emotions are felt and memories are stored. The limbic system releases chemicals that affect the central nervous system.
The inhalation of essential oils can set off both emotional and physical reactions in your body, such as changing your heart or breathing rate or making you feel calm or excited. They help us reach a pleasurable emotional balance, which can have a therapeutic effect on physical problems, especially those related to stress.
A holistic aromatherapy treatment aims at treating the whole person. The physical body, the mind and the spirit. Therefore, holistic aromatherapy utilises the pharmacological, psychotherapeutic and metaphysical properties of the oils.
Is Massage Safe for People with Cancer?
A light, relaxing massage can safely be given to individuals at all stages of cancer. Tumour or treatment sites should not be massaged to avoid discomfort or pressure on the affected area and underlying organs. If you have any concerns, talk to your oncologist.
Some individuals worry that massage can spread cancer cells throughout the body via the lymphatic system, but this is not so. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system. Lymphatic circulation occurs naturally as we move.
Cancer may spread (metastasise) into the lymphatic system via the lymph nodes, or it may start in the lymphatic system itself, but the circulation of lymph, from massage or other movement, does not cause cancer to spread.
Aromatherapy for People with Cancer
Many individuals with cancer use aromatherapy because it makes them feel good, which is really important when one is engaged in such a fierce battle.
Aromatherapy is used by people with cancer primarily as supportive care for general well-being. Cancer takes its toll on one’s nerves and all the anxiety and pain can result in the person with cancer becoming very depressed.
Aromatherapy is generally used together with other complementary treatments such as massage and acupuncture, as well as with standard treatments, for symptom management.
An aromatherapy massage can be very beneficial for individuals with cancer because it can help with the following side-effects caused by cancer or the treatment thereof:
- Range of Movement
- Quality of Life
Many individuals with cancer have also stated that being massaged with essential oils helps them share feelings in an informal setting, makes them feel more positive about their body and rebuilds hope.
Aromatherapy oils can reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy and lift people’s mood and improve their well-being.
How is Aromatherapy Applied?
There are various methods of using essential oils for aromatherapy, including:
Aromatherapy massages are a great way to relax, but make sure that your massage therapist is qualified and trained to work with people with cancer.
Essential oils are very concentrated so must be diluted, usually with a vegetable oil. This vegetable oil is called the carrier oil because it not only dilutes the essential oil but also carries the oil to the skin.
Some cancer treatments can make the skin more sensitive, so always tell your aromatherapist if you are having any cancer treatments or taking any medicines for cancer.
Patients with cancer tend to be very anxious about the recurrence of cancer, even after complete remission. This anxiety could reduce immunologic activity, resulting in an increase in the probability of recurrence.
Research has clarified that aromatherapy massage reduces anxiety and depression and increases CD8-positive and CD16-positive lymphocytes in peripheral blood.
You can use essential oils yourself at home in various ways:
- Added to a warm bath – they must always be diluted in a carrier, such as oil or cream
- Put in a cold compress next to your skin or on a handkerchief
- Added with water to an aromatherapy oil burner or diffuser, so the vapour spreads the aroma into the air (not recommended for people with asthma)
- Used as an aromastick – similar in design to nasal inhalers for cold relief, especially made up for you in particular by a qualified aromatherpist
- A few drops of essential oils can be added to a steaming pot of water or to your shower each day in order to vaporise the oils and inhale them.
Some of the essential oils that you can use to help alleviate some of the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of allopathic cancer treatments like chemotherapy include:
- Lavender – to relieve stress, treat depression, reduce inflammation, and act as a natural decongestant.
- Eucalyptus – to fight migraines, fevers, respiratory issues, and bacterial infections.
- Chamomile – a soothing essential oil that has antibacterial properties and can reduce inflammation and chronic pain.
- Bergamot – used to treat stress, anxiety, depression, skin infections, and fatigue.
- Peppermint – a stimulant that can sharpen your focus, enhance your mental alertness, and boost your energy.
Everyone has a unique body chemistry, so different oils may work differently on unique individuals. For this reason, aromatherapy may take time to improve your symptoms. You may need to try numerous oils and oil combinations before finding an oil or a combination of oils that truly works for you.
Research into Aromatherapy and Cancer
There is no scientific evidence that conclusively proves that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer.
There are however, a few studies that suggest that aromatherapy may be a helpful complementary therapy for people with cancer and other types of illness.
Aromatherapy is one of the complementary therapies most likely to be offered to patients in cancer clinics and hospitals as some research has shown that using aromatherapy can relieve some symptoms or side effects and can help people with cancer feel better emotionally.
Aromatherapy after surgery can reduce feelings of nausea and aromasticks have been known to help patients feel less anxious and stressed, less nauseous, and sleep better.
It is important to also mention Frankincense in this article, as frankincense (aka “boswelliaserrata”) has been used to support the immune system, fight infection and cure diseases including cancer for over 5 000 years.
A 2013 study by University of Leicester researchers indicated that frankincense contains a compound AKBA (acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid) that targets cancer cells, including ovarian, brain, breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate, and stomach cancers.
According to researchers out of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, frankincense helps regulate the cellular epigenetic machinery, which highlights its ability to influence genes to promote healing. As a result, they believe that it may be effective for both cancer prevention and treatment!
Using Aromatherapy Safely
Aromatherapy is safe for most people, but use it with care if you have cancer. Always speak to your oncologist first and get advice from a qualified aromatherapist who is experienced in treating people with cancer.
Also be sure to inform your doctor and aromatherapist if you are taking any other medicines, herbal products or homeopathic remedies as some essential oils could interact with and make such drugs or therapies weaker or stronger.
Never use essential oils on children unless you have first checked with his or her oncologist and an aromatherapist.
Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.
Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.