The Challenges of Cancer

Cancer patients are faced with a multitude of challenges, both physical and emotional. In addition, a diagnosis of cancer can be difficult to cope with and patients often feel anxious, frightened or may panic at times.

It is not uncommon for people receiving radiation and/or chemotherapy to have severe side effects and even long lasting health implications from these treatments. Surgery and radiation may contribute to pain, lymphedema, altered quadrant function and skin changes.

This pain can start or get worse some months or even years after treatment. This is due to the nervous system rewiring, as often nerves have been damaged.

Because this type of pain often does not respond to ordinary painkillers, alternative methods such as meditation, biofeedback, massage, lymphatic massage, guided imagery, yoga and aromatherapy can be included in an integrative approach.

Skilled Use of Essential Oils

Aromatherapy is the skilled use of essential oils distilled from plants, to help to balance the body, mind and spirit. The oils can be used directly on the body, diluted in massage oils and lotions or inhaled in a diffuser or used in the bath. 

As we inhale the aroma- particles from the oils, they are transported to the limbic system of the brain, where emotions are evoked.

Essential oils can be antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, immunostimulant and antioxidant and are also used for their psychotherapeutic effects.

Amazing Benefits

Aromatherapy can help the cancer patient cope with signs and symptoms caused by cancer and cancer related treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Anxiety, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain, difficulty sleeping, and stress may be lessened by alternative treatments. 

It is important to work with a qualified aromatherapist to safely choose the essential oils in combination with the client’s medical treatment and individual condition.

Aromatherapy Benefits & Cancer

Clients’ needs for aromatherapy will depend on the amount of pain experienced, site and tenderness in specific area, frequency of radiation, condition of the skin after radiation, medication taken, ability to sleep, state of the person’s morale and whether client is on chemotherapy. 

The goal is to improve the client’s quality of life and assist them, as they are on their journey to healing or in a palliative or hospice care setting. 

Skillfully blended and customized aromatherapy blends can help with a feeling of well-being, relief of constipation, headaches, muscular pain and insomnia, in addition to improvement of blood and lymph circulation.  Blends can assist in building a strong immune system and reduce the pain after radiation.

Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

Recurring disease:

Those who have recently recovered from cancer surgery are faced with the possibility of recurring disease. They often become stressed and anxious and fearful. 

Essential oil blends for depression such as Frankincense, Clary sage, Geranium, Neroli can be diffused or blended with fractionated coconut oil, for application on the solar plexus.

Sleep disturbance:

Sleep disturbances affect most patients during chemotherapy and many patients experience disturbed sleep.  

An aromatherapy blend with Petitgrain, Lavender, Sweet Marjoram and Roman Chamomile can help to reduce anxiety and tension, thus helping with a more peaceful sleep.


An aromatherapy blend of Rosemary, Lemon, Black Spruce and Peppermint can help with adrenal stress and increased energy.

Cancer related fatigue (CRF) has been documented as the most distressing symptom reported by cancer patients. This affects functioning and quality of life.

Skin Damage:

Radiation can severely damage skin and cause restrictions and pain. This damage can be minimized by the use of gentle, antioxidant essential oils. Oils such as Jasmine, Ylang-Ylang, Celery and Patchouli oil. Essential oil of Niaouli has been reported to minimize severity of burning of the skin and is also an immune-stimulant. 

Radiation burns can also be treated. Treated with a customized blend of soothing, anti-inflammatory oils, such as Lavender and Yarrow in a base of aloe-vera gel.  

Scar Tissue:

Scar tissue which can form after radiation or surgery can be painful. Also it can restrict lymph flow, which can contribute to lymphedema. 

Essential oil blends with Helichrysum and Lavender, Tamanu, Vitamin E, and Hazelnut Oil can be helpful to scar tissue.


Patients may also develop lymphedema as a secondary result of the cancer surgery and/or radiation. Blends with Grapefruit, Rosemary and Peppermint can assist with lymph fluid circulation and elimination of wastes from the interstitial tissue. 

Patients should seek the advice of a professional lymphedema therapist.

Aromatherapy Massage

Aromatherapy massage is a wonderful way of helping to support the patient’s mental and spiritual health. Thus boost immunity, which is important as some patients with cancer acquire a deficiency in the immune system.

There have been many studies with aromatherapy massage and cancer patients with varying results. 

Massage with or without essential oils appears to reduce levels of anxiety, however, the addition of an essential oil seems to enhance the effect of massage and to improve physical and psychological symptoms, as well as overall quality of life.

Researchers at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, in Japan measured immunological and psychological effects of aromatherapy massage and cancer patients, using Jojoba, Sweet Orange, Lavender and Sandalwood oils and found that the aromatherapy massage reduced anxiety and increased immunity.

 A blend of Lemon, Bay and Tea Tree could be a good immune stimulant by protecting against bacteria and viruses and by assisting in prevention of infections.

A 2004 study found that aromatherapy, footsoak and reflexology used in combination, relieved fatigue in patients with cancer.


Certain essential oils such as Fennel, Aniseed, Clary Sage and Sage have an estrogenic effect. Avoid them when being treated for estrogen dependent cancers.

Photo-toxic oils cause photo sensitization (light-related irritation or darkening of the skin) when exposed to certain types of light.

For a person about to be exposed to the intense rays of radiation therapy, it is important to avoid photo-toxic oils. Oils such as Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime and Verbena, to prevent a worsening of skin sensitivity.

Since cancer affects clients/patients on so many levels, therapists need to have an understanding of the ramifications of not only the cancer, but its treatment as well. Adding a knowledge of aromatherapy into one’s skills set can be beneficial in working with this population.

About The Author:

Linda-Anne Kahn is a Holistic Health Practitioner, CIDESCO Beauty Therapist, and President of Beauty Kliniek Aromatherapy Day Spa in San Diego and Lymphatic Therapy Services of San Diego.

She is a Clinical Aromatherapist and a Nationally certified Dr. Vodder Lymphedema Therapist. She teaches aromatherapy certification courses in San Diego.