AROMATHERAPY FOR CANCER

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from the fruits, flowers, seeds, leaves, roots, and bark of various plants. Because these substances are so concentrated they are too strong for internal use; this means you should never introduce them into your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, urethra, rectum, penis, or vagina, 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 molecular structure of the therapeutic compounds in essential oils are small enough to enter the blood stream via absorption through the nasal membranes1 or your skin.2 Not only can these improve your physical health (depending upon the product used) but these substances may also cross the blood-brain barrier thus triggering your brain's limbic system – a network of neural tissues in your brain which influences your senses of smell and sight, sleep cycles, body temperature, emotion, memory, and physical arousal, among other things. Cases in point:

The list goes on and on. However, I must provide two words of caution: (1) Do not overuse topical applications of any essential oils to avoid risk of toxicity through skin absorption; consult with your oncologist and an experienced aromatherapist for proper recommendations. (2) Do not use inhalant therapies if you happen to have asthma, COPD, emphysema, bronchitis, or any other lung disorder without first consulting with your doctor because some inhalants may worsen lung disorders.

If you opt for topical aromatherapy treatments there are other precautions to take. Because the oils are so concentrated these should never be applied full strength (i.e. “neat”) on your skin; instead they should always be diluted in a carrier oil such as vegetable oil. Using the oil “neat” puts you at risk of becoming sensitized to it, which can cause severe skin reactions. Once you are sensitized to an oil you are sensitized for life and will not be able to continue using it, even in diluted form. This is even true of “gentle” oils such as lavender or tea tree oil. A typical safe dilution is 12 drops of essential oil to 2 tablespoons (30ml) of carrier oil. Alternatively you could use a commercially prepared product such as aromatherapeutic lotions, creams, salves, liniments, massage oils, and bath oils, as these are already properly diluted. If you are at risk of developing hormone-fueled cancers do not use 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 agents are a safe form of aromatherapy 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 caution. For example, cancer patients should never apply topical aromatherapy products to areas undergoing radiation treatments, heat treatments, cold treatments, or light treatments until your oncologist says it is safe. 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 rupture of the tumor, resulting in metastasis.

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, massage therapists oftentimes offer aromatherapy massage as part of their therapeutic regimen.

At this point I should bring up a topic that will invariably be mentioned to you if you decide to use aromatherapy during your breast cancer treatment: There is this idea that tea tree oil and lavender oil have 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 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 in question. It was found that none of the constituents 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.

When choosing any aromatherapy products you will want to be sure that your aromatherapy products are sourced from organically grown plants as you do not want to expose yourself to pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Products which are organically sourced will say so on their labels, so be sure to read your labels carefully. Do not be afraid to inquire about the oils used by your aromatherapist and massage therapist – your health is at stake and you have the right to know.

One last note: 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. After several years of intense research he 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 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)