Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Improves the Quality of Life of Cancer Patients

Why people with cancer use aromatherapy

People with cancer use aromatherapy because it makes them feel good and alleviate pain or suffering. It is something they can do to help themselves with the help of a qualified aromatherapist. 

There is some research evidence suggesting that aromatherapy massage can help with the following effects due to cancer or its treatment.

  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Tiredness

It has been suggested that breathing in the vapours from certain oils seems to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But these claims are not supported by any research studies and the oils should only be used under the guidance of an aromatherapist.

Some people also claim that aromatherapy can help with physical problems through

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Fighting off colds and bacterial infections
  • Helping with period (menstrual) problems
  • Improving circulation and urine output
  • Relieving headaches and digestion problems

But there is currently no scientific evidence to prove any of these claims.

Research into aromatherapy and cancer

There is no scientific evidence to prove that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. But there are a few studies to suggest that aromatherapy may be a helpful complementary therapy for people with cancer and other types of illness. Aromatherapy is one of the complementary therapies most likely to be offered to patients in cancer clinics and hospitals. Research has looked at using aromatherapy to relieve symptoms or side effects or to help people to feel better emotionally.

Aromatherapy for symptom control in advanced cancer

A review is currently being carried out in the UK of all the trials that have looked at using aromatherapy massage to reduce symptoms in people with advanced cancer. 

A study in Hong Kong in 2011 seemed to show that aromatherapy massage can help to relieve constipation in patients with advanced cancer.

Aromatherapy for anxiety and depression

A small trial of 12 patients with breast cancer in Japan in 2009 found that aromatherapy massage helped to reduce their anxiety. Also in 2009 a review reported on 6 studies carried out from 2000 to 2008 which used essential oils for patients with depression or depressive symptoms. In 3 of the studies the patients had cancer. Some of the studies showed reduced anxiety and depression in people with cancer. The authors said that the evidence is weak though and they recommend further research to find out more about the effects of aromatherapy and also how it affects the mind and body.

A UK trial in 2007 tested whether adding aromatherapy massage to usual supportive care could reduce anxiety and depression in people with advanced cancer. 280 patients took part and they all had anxiety or depression. Half the patients had usual supportive care. The other half had supportive care plus aromatherapy massage. The researchers found that patients who had aromatherapy massage were less anxious or depressed for up to 2 to 6 weeks after the massage but there was no difference at 10 weeks. Further research is needed to compare aromatherapy and massage with other ways of treating anxiety and depression. 

An American study published in The Journal of Palliative Medicine in 2004 looked at the use of massage and aromatherapy in 42 people who had advanced cancer. These people were divided into 3 groups

  • Group 1 had weekly massages over 4 weeks
  • Group 2 had massages using lavender oil
  • Group 3 had no massages at all

At the end of the trial, people in groups 1 and 2 were sleeping much better and had less depression than those in group 3.

In 1999 a study assessed the effects of aromatherapy massage and massage therapy on 103 people with cancer in a symptom control setting. Some people had massage using only a carrier oil, and some had an aromatherapy massage with the essential oil Roman Chamomile. People in both groups had lower levels of anxiety. But those who had Roman Chamomile oil massage seemed to have more improvement in physical and psychological symptoms and in overall quality of life.

In 1998 a UK study looked at the effects of aromatherapy in 58 cancer patients. Most of these patients were women with breast cancer who said that they would like aromatherapy to help them with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and fear. Each patient had 6 aromatherapy treatments during the study. At the end of these treatments all the patients showed a significant improvement in their feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.
Aromatherapy for side effects of cancer treatment

An American study in 2004 showed that aromatherapy after surgery can reduce feelings of sickness. 33 patients took part and they inhaled alcohol, oil of peppermint, or a dummy treatment of salt water. They breathed in the vapours from gauze pads and then breathed out slowly through the mouth. Only 52% of the patients needed standard anti sickness medicines. But the salt water worked as well as the peppermint and the alcohol. So it may be that the helpful effect of the aromatherapy was due to the controlled breathing patterns rather than the actual smell breathed in.


A study in a UK hospital in 2011 looked at using aromasticks in people with cancer. Aromasticks are similar in design to vapour inhalers for cold relief. They contain essential oils and aim to help patients manage anxiety, nausea and sleep disturbance. 160 people used the aromasticks in the study. 77% of all patients reported at least one benefit from the aromastick. 

  • In anxious patients, 65% reported feeling more relaxed and 51% felt less stress
  • 47% of patients who felt sick said that the aromastick had settled their nausea
  • 55% of the people who had sleep disturbances felt that the aromastick helped them to sleep

The results are positive but further larger studies need to be carried out to see how helpful aromasticks might be for people with cancer. 

Most studies so far have been small and don’t give enough evidence to come to any conclusions about the true benefits of aromatherapy massage in people with cancer.

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