Aromatherapy for Cancer Symptoms

Aromatherapy is a type of complementary therapy and one that many cancer patients use in conjunction with traditional medical treatment.

Aromatherapy 101

For centuries, humans have used essential oil for healing. Many essential oils, which are derived from the stems, leaves, flowers, and roots of plants, have pharmacologic actions, which is why they are used in aromatherapy. Some are microbial or analgesic (pain relieving). Others reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Studies on odor and the brain find that certain smells produce special effects on human neurophysiology and automatic function. For example, odors can influence mood, perceived health, and arousal.

While aromatherapy does not directly treat cancer, it helps relieve patients' disease symptoms and treatment side effects and improves their quality of life. Aromatherapy may even boost the effectiveness of treatment by improving patients' attitudes.

Aromatherapy and Cancer

Cancer patients are understandably anxious, and fears of cancer returning can perpetuate this anxiety long after treatment concludes. Researchers believe prolonged anxiety reduces activity in the immune system, leading to the very result patients fear: a recurrence of their cancer.

Studies show that patients' anxiety levels significantly significant decrease following aromatherapy. In fact, in a study with breast cancer patients, participants' anxiety scores went down immediately after an aromatherapy session and continued over time. Other studies find aromatherapy lessens depression, pain, and nausea.

The two main aromatherapy techniques are to inhale the scent (directly or indirectly), or apply it topically, usually during massage.

While generally beneficial, aromatherapy can produce adverse effects. Patients may experience skin irritation from too much or prolonged exposure to essential oils, and they can cause allergic reactions. Essential oils increase your sensitivity to sun and may be toxic in combination with some traditional cancer treatments. You should not ingest essential oils.

You or your aromatherapy practitioner should only purchase essential oils from reputable companies. They should be 100 percent derived from one or more named botanical sources by steam distillation (or by mechanical pressing for citrus oils). The bottle should say the contents are pure essential oils. Use the botanical name, not the commercial name, when ordering oils. Buy small bottles and keep them tightly closed to minimize exposure to oxygen.

Scientific research and anecdotal results make a strong case for integrating aromatherapy with traditional cancer treatments. Be sure to discuss aromatherapy with your physician to prevent unexpected complications.


National Cancer Institute. "Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®)." Web. 29 October 2010.

Medical News Today. "The Benefits Of Aromatherapy: M. D. Anderson Teaches How To To Soothe And Heal." Web. 29 August 2006.

Medical News Today. "Complementary Therapies Improve Lives Of People Living With Cancer, Australia." Web. 9 November 2010.

Imanishi, Jiro, Kuriyama, Hiroko, Shigemori, Ichiro, Watanabe, Satoko, Aihara,Yuka, Kita, Masakazu, Sawai, Kiyoshi, Nakajima, Hiroo, Yoshida, Noriko, Kunisawa, Masahiro, Kawase, Masanori, and Fukui,Kenji. "Anxiolytic Effect of Aromatherapy Massage in Patients with Breast Cancer." Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 6(1) (2009): 123-128. Web. 24 March 2010.

Fellowes, D. "Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer." Medscape Medical News. 1 July 2007.

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. "FAQ on aromatherapy safety." Web.