AROMATHERAPY FOR CANCER

 

AROMATHERAPY DEFINED

Aromatherapy is the use of oils which contain vaporized compounds extracted directly from plants. These compounds may be collected from the fruits, flowers, seeds, leaves, roots, or bark of various plants, depending upon the plant substances needed (different parts of plants will contain different concentrations of therapeutic compounds). Because the compounds in these oils are concentrated they are too strong for internal use; this means you should never allow the oils to have direct contact with your eyes, inner ears, nostrils, inner mouth, urethra (urine duct), rectum, vagina, or open wounds -- even in a diluted form. Aromatherapy agents are primarily used as inhalants, however some products may also be used as a treatment applied to the skin (topical).

 

THE SCIENCE BEHIND AROMATHERAPY

It is well-known that plants contain natural substances from which we have derived many of our current medications. For example, salicylic acid (the main ingredient in aspirin) was derived from white willow bark; the heart medication digitalis was derived from foxglove flowers; and taxanes (a class of chemotherapy medications) were derived from yew bushes. Although many plant-based substances are usually absorbed into the blood stream through oral or intravenous routes, the compounds in essential oils have a small enough molecular structure to allow absorption through either your nasal membranes,1 or your skin.2 Because the molecules are so small they are also allowed to cross the blood-brain barrier -- a system which restricts larger molecules from entering the brain -- thus allowing the molecules to act on the brain's limbic system. The limbic system is a specialized network influencing your senses of smell and sight, sleep cycles, body temperature, emotion, memory, physical arousal, and other things. Of course, different molecules will have different effects on this system. Here is some of what the research has found:

These are but a scant few of the numerous scientific studies confirming the therapeutic effect of essential oils.

 

USAGE OF PRODUCTS

Although aromatherapy is generally known to be a safe form of therapy, it is not something to be used without guidelines. Two of the most important things to keep in mind are:

(1) Do not overuse topical aromatherapy products because some can become toxic when too much is absorbed. Never use more than what a commerical package recommends, and be sure the package comes with complete instructions. Complete instructions should contain guidelines regarding the amount of product used per "dose", how frequently it should be used, and known medical precautions. If any of this information is absent then I strongly recommend that you consult a formally educated aromatherapist for advice.

(2) Never use inhalant-based aromatherapy if you have been diagnosed with asthma, COPD, emphysema, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, chemo-induced lung damage, respiratory allergies, or any other non-infectious lung disorder without first consulting with your doctor because some products may worsen these disorders. If you are using inhalant therapy for infectious diseases (cold, influenza, pneumonia, etc.) you must be sure you are not allergic to any of the ingredients in the product before use.

If you use topical aromatherapy treatments then you have another precaution to consider: Because the elements in essential oils are so concentrated these should never be applied full strength (i.e. “neat”) on your skin; instead they should be diluted in a carrier oil such as vegetable oil or mineral oil. And yes, I can hear some of you saying "I use my essential oils "neat" all the time and have never had a problem!" This may be true, however, properly educated aromatherapists know that using the oils "neat" puts users at risk of becoming sensitized to the substances in it. Sensitization causes severe skin reactions, and once you are sensitized to a substance you are sensitized for life; you will continue to suffer reactions even if you try using it diluted in any way, shape, or form. Although there is no guarantee that sensitization will happen to an individual, there is also no guarantee that it won't happen. Sensitization can happen at any time; whether it be the first time or the ten-thousandth time you use an essential oil "neat," and this oftentimes becomes a sudden development. Therefore, it is much safer to dilute essential oils with a carrier oil and avoid the risk. A typical safe dilution for topical use is 12 drops of essential oil to 2 tablespoons (30ml) of carrier oil, however this may be adjusted according to individual need and professional recommendation. Alternatively, you could use commercially prepared products such as aromatherapeutic lotions, creams, salves, liniments, massage oils, and bath oils, as these are already properly diluted; just be sure you are not allergic to any of the other ingredients in the product(s). If you are at risk of developing estrogen-fueled cancers do not use any prepared products which contain estrogen-similar ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, coal tars, triclosan, ethylene oxides, butadiene, or naphthalene. Check your product labels! If in doubt, do not use it.

Properly used topical aromatherapy agents are a safe form of therapy with few risks of side effects (such as skin irritation or allergic reaction) in people with normal health. Cancer patients, however, may have certain conditions that require more other precautions. For example, cancer patients should never apply topical products to areas undergoing radiation treatments, heat treatments, cold treatments, or light treatments until your oncologist says it is safe, otherwise you risk unwanted skin reactions. Also be aware that some chemotherapy agents may cause your skin to be more sensitive to other substances resulting in an uncomfortable skin reaction to the aromatherapy agent. Never apply topical products to broken skin, open sores, new surgical sites, or areas affected by hand/foot syndrome as this may cause sensitization. Never apply topical products to the skin area covering a tumor location as the massaging motion may encourage breaking of the tumor, resulting in metastasis (spreading of the cancer).

 

DOUBLE DUTY PRODUCTS

Many aromatherapy agents can serve double-duty as an inhalant and as a topical remedy. For example, German chamomile oil can be used as an inhalant for respiratory irritation and as a topical agent for superficial skin problems. Oregano oil can be used in a steamer as an inhalant to relieve colds and as a topical agent to kill nail fungus. Peppermint oil can be used as an inhalant to sharpen your concentration and as a topical agent to relieve muscle pain. Because of this double-duty value many massage therapists oftentimes offer aromatherapy massage as part of their therapeutic regimen.

 

LAVENDER and TEA TREE OILS

At this point I should bring up a topic that may be mentioned to you when you decide to use aromatherapy with an estrogen-fueled cancer: There is this idea that tea tree oil, and lavender oil have estrogen-like ("estrogenic") properties and therefore estrogen-fueled cancer patients should steer clear of them. Is there scientific evidence to back this up, and should you be concerned as a cancer patient?

This idea originated from a study led by Dr. Derek Henley, Ph.D. which was published in 2007. This study suspected that lavender oil and tea tree oil, which were found to have weak estrogenic effect during in vitro studies,9 had caused three young boys exposed to these oils to experience breast growth even though their exposure was limited to normal use of commercial products (shampoos, lotions, and soaps).10 The study stated “On the basis of the three case reports and the in vitro studies, we suspect that repeated topical application of over-the-counter products containing lavender oil or tea tree oil was the cause of gynecomastia [breast growth] in the three patients.” and then went on to recommend “... we suggest that the medical community should be aware of the possibility of endocrine disruption and should caution patients about repeated exposure to any products containing these oils.” Even though this study was being careful to avoid making solid claims on the matter, the media – with their usual sensationalism – ran the headlines, raising concerns through the public.

In truth, Henley's study was criticized in scientific circles due to it's unfounded assumptions, erroneous information and lack of scientific data: The study claimed that tea tree oil is “chemically similar” to lavender oil, which in reality it is not. The report gives no details regarding the other possibly-estrogenic ingredients in the commercial products used by the boys, gives no details about the composition of the oils tested in vitro, and no attempts were made to evaluate the levels of oils in the commercial products used by the boys. It was also found that none of the elements in tea tree oil that penetrate human skin are estrogenic and that the oil actually inhibits the ability of other substances to penetrate the skin. Although lavender oil is shown to be weakly estrogenic in vitro, there is no scientific evidence that the oil reacts the same when metabolized and processed in a living person. Also, the report does not mention whether the boys were exposed to any pesticides, (some of which have estrogenic effects) or if they were exposed to other estrogenic substances such as phthalates or parabens that are common in many cosmetic products. In short, the study contained only superficial information and virtually none of the ideas or suppositions contained within were substantiated.11 In spite of Henley's study being so heavily flawed and incomplete the myth that these oils are estrogenic continue to circulate.

 

CHOOSING A PRODUCT

When choosing any aromatherapy products you will want to be sure that your products are organically sourced as you do not want to expose yourself to concentrations of certain pesticides and other toxic chemicals; organically sourced will say so on their labels.

You also want to be sure that the label specifically states that the product is 100% pure essential oil, and from which part(s) of the plant the compounds are extracted from. Reject products which list "fragrance" in their ingredients as this tends to indicate the addition of artificial, inactive substances.

The label should state that the product underwent a process of gas chromatography (GC) and/or mass spectometry (MS); techniques which "fingerprint" the oil, ensuring it was not adulterated with additives.

 

PRECAUTIONS

You should also be aware that some topical aromatherapy agents may thin the blood, cause skin sensitivity to sunlight, or interfere with the effectiveness of some chemotherapy medications due to the fact that the agent enters your body through skin absorption. A patient should speak with his or her oncologist first, and then seek out an aromatherapist who is experienced with cancer patients if the oncologist gives the green-light to use aromatherapy. It is also wise to speak with your massage therapist as well if she also uses aromatherapeutic products during your sessions.


BACH FLOWER ESSENCES

Bach Flower Essences (BFE) is a branch of aromatherapy discovered by Dr. Edward Bach in the 1930's. It was his belief that treating the emotional and psychological components of a patient are just as important as treating the physical illnesses the patients are experiencing. In other words, a patient who is taken care of emotionally and mentally is a patient who will heal better and faster. Good science agrees with this concept. After several years of intense research Dr. Bach identified thirty-eight flowers from plants that he believed were effective in treating the emotional and psychological components of the patients. Preparations made from these plants are now known as Bach Flower Remedies or Bach Flower Essences.

The biggest difference between aromatherapy and and BFE is that aromatherapy's essential oils are highly concentrated and thus too strong for direct skin contact and internal use; in contrast, BFE are very diluted solutions which are non-toxic, therefore they can be used for direct skin contact and internal use. Because BFE uses a diluted form of aromatherapy some consider this form of therapy to be a hybrid of aromatherapy and homeopathy.

Because BFE formulas are not concentrated they can be used orally as well as topically without further dilution. As of this writing they are not known to interact with medications or other treatments. Due to this broad spectrum of safety BFE can be safely used by most healthy people. As a cancer patient you should take caution though, especially when applying BFE to your skin. Check with your doctor first regarding use of the topical applications as you do not want to interfere with your treatments, disturb a tumor site, or cause unexpected skin issues to crop up. Take the same precautions as you would with topical aromatherapy products just to be on the safe side.

Because BFE are intended to treat the patient's mental and emotional dispositions they are not used for actual physical symptoms. For example, they are not used as an analgesic or as an anti-nausea agent. They are not used for soothing skin irritations or inflammation. However, by treating the mental and emotional aspects of the patient some physical symptoms may abate as a result. For example, if a patient is experiencing headaches due to chronic anxiety, the essences used for calming and relaxing the patient will have the benefit of reducing the headaches – the essence isn't an analgesic, but the reduction of the anxiety will reduce the frequency of anxiety-induced headaches. If another patient is experiencing fatigue due to sleeplessness, the essences used for promoting sleep will have the benefit of reducing the fatigue – the essence isn't an energizer, but the reduction of insomnia will reduce the level of fatigue.

What is the current scientific evidence that Bach Flower Essences work? In truth, there isn't much at this time because there has not been very much research in this area. A study published in 2007 involving 384 patients investigated the potential of using BFE as a psychological method of pain relief. Although the study noted that 88% of the patients reported improvements in their emotional well-being after treatment, the study also noted “...it is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion as to significance of the therapeutic value of these remedies in relation to pain above that of a placebo.”12 Reviews of randomized clinical trials with BFE therapy have concluded that there isn't sufficient evidence that it actually works.13 14 This is not to say that the use of BFE therapy doesn't work, it simply means there has not been enough scientific study performed to officially establish whether it works. If, in spite of the lack of definitive evidence, you decide to give BFE therapy a try you must be aware of the following precautions:

  1. BFE formulas are made with diluted alcohol. I strongly advise avoiding this form of therapy if you are a recovering alcoholic, allergic to alcohol, pregnant, or if you are on any medications which interact with alcohol.

  2. Do not use topically on skin that has been exposed to radiation treatment, ultraviolet light treatment, heat treatment, has had recent surgery, is broken, or covering the site of an active tumor.

  3. Do not use a substance if you know you are allergic to it. For example, if you are allergic to honeysuckle, then do not use the honeysuckle essence.

     

1Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy: A Systemic Review (Babar Ali, 2015)
2Clinical Aromatherapy EOs in Practice, Francesca Mattesi, (2016) p.25
3The effects of lavender oil inhalation on emotional states, autonomic nervous system, and brain electrical activity. (Winai Sayorwan, et al, 2012)
4 Effect of lavender aromatherapy on vital signs and perceived quality of sleep in the intermediate care unit: a pilot study. (Jamie Lytle, et al, 2014)
5 Effects of Inhaled Rosemary Oil on Subjective Feelings and Activities of the Nervous System”(Winai Sayorwan, et al, 2013)
6 Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. (Moss, et al, 2003)
7Antiproliferative and Molecular Mechanism of Eugenol-Induced Apoptosis in Cancer Cells (Jaganathan, 2012). Results were observed in melanoma, osteosarcoma, leukemia, gastric cancer, and prostate cancer.
8Eugenol Causes Melanoma Growth Suppression through Inhibition of E2F1 Transcriptional Activity (Ghosh, 2004)
9In vitro” means in a test tube or other container outside the human body. In vitro tests do not involve living beings such as laboratory animals (in vivo studies) or human studies (clinical trials). Since a living being metabolizes and processes substances in ways that in vitro tests do not, an in vitro result cannot be translated as having the same exact results in a living being without being tested first.
10Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils. (Derek. V. Henley, Ph..D., 2007)
11Neither Lavender Oil Nor Tea Tree Oil Can Be Linked to Breast Growth In Young Boys”, Robert Tisserand., world renowned aromatherapist and massage therapist. This article gives valid scientific sources and reference information too numerous to include in this webpage..
12Do Bach flower remedies have a role to play in pain control? A critical analysis investigating therapeutic value beyond the placebo effect, and the potential of Bach flower remedies as a psychological method of pain relief. (Judy Howard, 2007)
13Bach Flower Remedies: A Systematic Review of Randomised Clinical Trials (Edzard Ernst, 2010)
14Bach Flower Remedies for Psychological Problems and Pain: A Systematic Review (Kylie Thaler, et al, 2009)