It’s great that there are more cancer treatment options than ever before. Yet for all these advances, treatment side effects can still knock you off your feet and severely impact your quality of life. Surprisingly, relief can come from a centuries-old source…essential oils.

Derived from plant flowers, leaves, stalks and/or roots, essential oils contain unique chemical components that give each oil a distinct scent. Aromatherapy is the art of using these scents to improve well-being. Many essential oils stimulate your sense of smell in a way that can ease cancer treatment side effects, such as reducing stress and nausea.

To learn about the most effective essential oils for reducing specific cancer treatment side effects, we spoke to Cherie Perez, RN, CCRP, LMT, a researcher and a practitioner of aromatherapy for 25 years.

Perez emphasizes that different aromas have different effects on different people, and what smells good or at least acceptable to you may be intolerable to someone else. Therefore, you may want to try several different oils for relief of the side effects below to find the ones that create the best combination of pleasantness and effectiveness for you. It’s worth spending time to find what you like because of the results—Perez says aromatherapy has been described as “red light meditation” because it can change your mood in the time it takes to stop for a red light.

HOW TO USE ESSENTIAL OILS

Essential oils usually are diluted because they’re very concentrated—full strength on the skin, they can cause burns. Instead, they can be dispersed in the air with a diffuser and inhaled…or diluted in an odor-free oil, called a “carrier” oil, and massaged into the skin. Apricot kernel oil, jojoba oil and safflower oil are common carrier oils. For convenience with self-massage use, look for essential oils that already have been combined with carrier oils so that you won’t have to worry about mixing the right concentration.

Another option that Perez frequently recommends is placing two or three drops of an essential oil or oil blend on a tissue and holding it two to six inches from your nose—no closer!—so you can inhale the vapor. (In terms of distance, placing the tissue against your upper chest is ideal.)

You might want to try each of these techniques to see which one you respond to best—some work better in certain situations, as you’ll see below.

Whichever method of inhalation you choose, to get the oil’s benefits, take several slow, deep breaths every five to 10 minutes for as long as you like.

While you can try any oil whose scent appeals to you, here are specific ones that have been found to work to relieve the following cancer treatment side effects…

Nausea. Ginger essential oil can help conquer nausea—and if you get rid of nausea, you can avoid its serious complications of dehydration and malnutrition. Orange and spearmint help some people, too. If you know that a cancer treatment brings on nausea, use an essential oil just before the treatment or at the first sensation of nausea. Perez says that the tissue method is very effective for nausea. Take two to five slow deep breaths, then flush the tissue in the toilet to avoid any chance of associating the scent with nausea later. Repeat this two or three times over a few hours.

Some people with treatment-induced nausea respond very well to essential-oil self-massage from the throat down to the abdomen. While gently applying oil, imagine that your stomach feels settled as your hands move downward, and picture your favorite vacation or relaxation place.

Sleeplessness. Studies show that nearly half of all people with cancer suffer from sleep problems. Sleeplessness can be due to stress, extended hospital stays or side effects of treatment. Inhaling lavender, chamomile or vetiver essential oil—depending on your personal preference—can help improve sleep quality, especially when you add it to a good sleep-hygiene routine. Just before getting into bed, place a few drops of the essential oil you like best on a tissue and place the tissue on your pillow near your face or on your upper chest. You can use the tissue to help you get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. If you find self-massage more soothing, massage your upper chest and arms with a diluted oil or blend of oils.

Constipation. Chemotherapy, pain medication, changes in diet and not drinking enough water can lead to constipation and related symptoms such as bloating, cramps and nausea. Essential oils such as ginger, peppermint, fennel and chamomile are good at helping when massaged clockwise on the abdomen once or twice a day.

Anxiety. Being a cancer patient is stressful and creates anxiety. Perez favors the oils of neroli, frankincense, lavender and/or vetiver to promote calm and relaxation. While you can use any essential-oil technique anytime, if anxiety is making it hard to sleep, try taking a bath or shower with an essential oil bath gel. Helpful: If you get anxious during a cancer treatment, exam or scan, take a tissue with a few drops of essential oil on it with you to the treatment area (even right into an MRI or a CT suite, where you can keep the tissue on your chest while the images are taken).

Fatigue. Loss of energy and fatigue are common side effects of many cancer treatments, and often rest isn’t enough to combat them. Try eucalyptus and bergamot oils for an invigorating boost of energy. A morning shower with an essential-oil body gel can be uplifting. 

BUYING ESSENTIAL OILS

Because the FDA doesn’t regulate the labeling or quality of essential oils, buying them from a person with aromatherapy training or a reputable online store is important.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has an online marketplace that can connect you to practitioners, including massage therapists, certified in medical massage who understand the needs of cancer patients. You’ll also find listings of Internet and brick-and-mortar stores where you can buy essential oils.

Quality products should have the common and botanical names for the oil on the label, which helps better identify plant varieties. Avoid any brands with rubber eyedropper dispensers, says Perez, because the oil can cause the rubber to break down and contaminate the oil. Also, look for oils packaged in dark-colored bottles, such as amber or cobalt, to protect them from light.

ESSENTIAL OILS MAY BE EVEN MORE POWERFUL

Studies on additional benefits of essential oils during cancer treatment and recovery have been small but are promising. For instance, a 2016 study found that patients who sniffed a mixture of ginger and lemon essential oils had less salivary gland damage, a side effect of radioactive iodine therapy, compared with a group that sniffed distilled water.

Another study found that gargling with a mixture of one drop each of manuka and kanuka essential oils diluted in a glass of water eased pain and delayed the onset of mucositis, a painful side effect of cancer treatment, in people receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancers. This can make it easier to eat, drink and stay hydrated.

More extensive research is needed to confirm these positive findings.