essential oils

This article was last updated on Feb. 22, 2017

When battling the stress, fatigue, and emotional turmoil of living with cancer, some people find relief through aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils to help your mind and body relax.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

Research suggests that different scents can send signals to our brains that change our mood, alertness, and stress levels. Some oils also have antibacterial or antifungal properties when used on the skin.

These can be effective in helping you combat the fatigue and depression that often come along with a cancer diagnosis.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are natural aromatic compounds found in plants, and have been used throughout history for health and well-being. They may be used in a variety of ways to affect mood and emotional states, and support body systems.

Common essential oils that can target cancer side effects include:

  • Lavender: Widely used for its calming and relaxing qualities, helping to ease feelings of tension.
  • Peppermint: May be diffused when feeling fatigued, and helps respiratory function and clear breathing.
  • Citrus oils (lemon, lime, and grapefruit): Help cleanse and purify the air and surfaces. They may also be diffused to promote a positive mood.
  • Ginger: May help reduce occasional nausea, and the aroma provides a boost of energy and antioxidant protection.
    Frankincense: Supports healthy cellular function, and can be applied to the bottoms of the feet or diffused to promote feelings of relaxation and to balance mood.

How Do I Use Essential Oils?

Most essential oils are inhaled or applied to the skin. You may try a couple different methods of using the oils:

  • Place a couple drops in a diffuser nearby
  • Place a couple drops on a tissue or wash cloth near your face
  • Place a drop or two in a cup of steaming water or in a bath and inhale the steam
  • Dilute a drop or two in a carrier oil (such as coconut or jojoba) and apply to points on the skin
  • Use oil diluted in a carrier oil during a massage

Although few research studies have been done to see how effective aromatherapy is for people with cancer, there are few side effects such that potential benefits outweigh risks for most patients. The most common negative effect is an allergic skin reaction where the oil is applied. Typically, oils should not be ingested. Use caution with inhaling oils if you have lung disease, asthma, or a condition that causes trouble breathing.

Aromatherapy may be a supportive therapy you can incorporate into your care plan if you’re struggling with emotional, mental, or physical problems. It may also be a distraction technique for stressful situations and a way to control your environment during difficult times. Be sure to talk with your oncologist about using essential oils safely during or after cancer treatment.

As a part of the Wellness and Integrative Oncology Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, an oncologist can recommend a professional with experience in aromatherapy to give you direction on what oils to use and how to shop for them.

Want to learn more about integrative oncology, including yoga and other practices for cancer patients? Check out our Medical Mondays segment focused on integrative oncology.