Patients and practitioners have an arsenal of natural treatment options at their disposal, whether used alongside modern medicine or in place of it when nothing else can be done, and many of these practices have been in place for generations. Essential oils, on the other hand, are the new kid on the block when it comes to cancer.

As researchers learn more about the specific ways essential oils affect cancer and how to translate that into practical use, what – if anything – should we do in response?

Essential oils are incredible substances that have a role in all of our lives, and it’s important to pay attention to the many established uses and heavy potential in the relationship between cancer and essential oils.

How Essential Oils Fit into History

As the fragrant oil found within various parts of a plant, typically the leaf or flower, essential oils are also called “volatile oils,” referring to the way in which they are released. Modern essential oils are usually collected when the plant matter is distilled, triggering the release of the essential oil.

This exact process is somewhat new in light of the course of our overarching history with herbs and botanicals. But, as you can imagine, those volatile oils are obviously present in all plants and were no doubt released and included in the earliest of infusions and preparations. Just because we can isolate that exact compound now doesn’t mean that previous generations had not enjoyed the benefits to some extent.

With that in mind, we can look to ancient uses of infused oils, primitive distillation, and general appreciation of the plants that we now use specifically for the essential oil, and that history helps to guide our growing knowledge of the mechanisms of the oils.

One of the most longstanding sources of medicine in the world is the practice of Ayurvedic medicine in India, extending back long before Hippocrates. Ayurveda combines many therapeutic techniques, including essential oils as aromatherapy, and has proven itself in recent research. According to a 2013 study,

Based on comprehensive review of ancient vedic literature and modern scientific evidences, Ayurveda based interventions…may act as an important adjuvant to chemo-radiotherapy and enhance the quality of life of cancer patients. (1)

This is, of course, just one example of historic – even ancient practices retaining efficacy today, and studies like these are a constant encouragement to those of us pursuing natural treatments or support.

It’s also important to note that Ayurveda uses essential oils far differently than modern aromatherapists, who will, in turn, each use them differently from each other. History may be a guide toward essential oils, but it’s up to us to determine how and why we will use them now.

How Essential Oils are Used Today

Spend five minutes online and you know that essential oils are viewed and used in many different ways. Some of that goes back to our growing understanding of their specific actions. Some of it is personal preference and use.

The interesting thing about aromatherapy is that, though it doesn’t have to smell pleasant to have therapeutic benefits, individual aversions and emotional scent connection can negate some of the benefits. So essential oil use can be truly personal!

Traditional use of essential oils directly are for the aroma, hence the term aroma-therapy, coined in the last century. Ancient use of infused oils and essential oils included skin treatments and bathing as well as incense and burning for the aroma.

Modern uses of essential oils range from historically-derived aromatherapy and baths to topical formulations, diluted (and sometimes undiluted) topical applications, and internal use. As an increasingly popular arm of natural health, you’ll find contradicting recommendations on topical and internal use guidelines and safety. So, as you are learning oils and how to use them, remember two things: first, always dilute your oils; second, consult with a professional if you are unsure of what to do or how to do it safely.

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What Research Tells Us About Essential Oils

When looking at essential oils through the lens of potential cancer treatment, remember that researchers are working through all of these variables in use, as well, and it’s important to note the type of use that research indicates before translating it directly to use.

Most research, to this point, has been conducted in vitro, or in a petri dish. Scientists are working through the ways that specific oils do or don’t affect specific kinds of cancer cells. Once a substance is found to have promise in vitro, steps are taken to test it in animals, then eventually in humans. But dosing, application, and efficacy are no small feat to figure, and this is a very long and precise process.

A brief consideration of the variables to be considered when finding or confirming remedies and treatments gives us a new appreciation for all that these researchers are able to do for us!

In light of this strenuous process, as you’ll see when we dive into specific oils in a moment, there is a lot that research can tell us about essential oils and cancer, and there is a lot that it cannot tell us. But just as we let ancient uses guide us toward isolated essential oils themselves, we can let research guide us toward specific essential oils that may help us in the battle against cancer.

Perhaps someday we’ll see in science exactly how to use these oils efficiently and directly against cancer. Until then, using known, safe applications of these promising essential oils, we can at least take steps to introduce the body to these powerful substances.

Top 5 Essential Oils for Cancer Patients

It’s important to note here that most essential oils have numerous applications that would be beneficial for cancer patients. Not only should we consider the potential anti-cancer benefits themselves, but we can look toward the concurrent issues that cancer brings in its wake – depression, anxiety, pain, nausea, treatment side effects, immune disruption, and so much more.

We’ve tried to include the oils that cover many of these bases, but there are endless variations of essential oil blends that can help with these side effects and symptoms. Spend some time getting to know the essential oils in your remedy cabinet, or make a wish list of essential oils to blend. The wide range of therapeutic benefits are incredible!

1. Frankincense. Currently the banner substance for cancer and essential oil, frankincense is probably the most widely discussed oil in recent months. Lab tests for frankincense have extended across multiple types of cancer, including ovarian, breast, and skin cancers. (2, 3, 4) An active component in frankincense is boswellic acid, and this is what researchers are finding to be so potent against cancer cells.

In addition to anti-cancer potential, frankincense also is known for anti-inflammatory and pain relieving benefits, as well as immune support. Any one of these effects can be invaluable when you’re struggling with a weakened system, inflammatory pain, and general discomfort associated with either the cancer or your primary treatment. Frankincense oil can be used for these benefits primarily with the anti-cancer potential as a bonus, or vice versa – you really cannot go wrong with this powerfully therapeutic oil!

Common use of frankincense oil is in properly diluted topical applications, as well as diffused throughout the room. These uses support the more commonly known effects of frankincense oil, as researchers have not yet translated its anti-cancer benefits to a dose or application. Some use it internally, as well – I personally fall into this camp, using it regularly diluted into honey and stirred into water.

2. Myrrh. The second component of the Christmas trio, myrrh is a resin that has been valuable in its own right for millennia. While the Magi certainly brought  the full resin with them as their gift, myrrh essential oil is worth gold for its healing properties.

For cancer directly, myrrh exhibits similar strengths as frankincense, and the two were evaluated in tandem in a 2013 study. While they didn’t make each other stronger synergistically for cancer, both were equally effective against cancer cells: The results indicated that the MCF-7 and HS-1 cell lines showed increased sensitivity to the myrrh and frankincense essential oils compared with the remaining cell lines. (5) In other words, the cancer cells that were tested were highly sensitive to both myrrh and frankincense.

Interestingly for both the Christmas story and current therapeutic effects, myrrh is also a strong wound healer and antimicrobial. For cancer patients dealing with open sores, weakened immune systems during viral exposures, and inflammatory skin conditions, myrrh is a must-have.

The best applications for myrrh essential oil are diffused in the room, especially for the antiviral benefits, and applied topically. Dilute properly in an organic carrier oil, and enjoy in tandem with frankincense for increased antimicrobial synergy. (6)

3. Peppermint. The composition of peppermint essential oil, including menthol and other strong substances, makes it a powerful combination of stimulation and relaxation that can be used in multiple ways. For the cancer patient, this can mean relief from headaches, soothing topical treatments for pain, and nausea relief, to name a few.

Specifically with regard to relief of treatment side effects, a broad review of essential oils used in cancer therapy noted peppermint essential oil in particular in its 2014 publication, saying, “Mentha spicata and M. piperita have been found to be effective in overcoming these emetic conditions (chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, CINV) along with the reduction of expenditure on treatment in the cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.” (7)

An especially effective way to use peppermint essential oil is to create an essential oil inhaler or simply carry the bottle and open to smell it when feeling waves of nausea or an oncoming migraine. Dilute topical applications to avoid skin sensitivity.

4. Thyme. While it may not be the first essential oil we think of in traditional, floral-scented aromatherapy, thyme stands out as a vital oil for the cancer patient’s remedy stash. As a whole herb, thyme has a host of benefits for health as well as delicious culinary preparations. Lesser known effects, however, include estrogen binding and hormone balancing that make it potentially effective against breast cancer proliferation. (8)

The essential oil shows similar benefits, standing out among ten essential oils tested as the strongest of the group against cancer cells. (9) In the same study, the oils were tested against bacteria, and thyme once again was among the strongest of the oils.

As an antimicrobial, use thyme in diffusions or even cleaning blends to help stave off illness while your immune system is down.

5. Lavender. The quintessential essential oil, is there anything lavender isn’t good for? Relaxing, anti-inflammatory, and now potentially anti-cancer. If you have no other oils in your repertoire, make sure you have an excellent lavender!

A strong antioxidant stimulant – boosting natural production of these cell-healing substances – lavender has been shown to upregulate the body’s production of antioxidants in a short amount of time. (10) This alone can be beneficial for cancer patients, notwithstanding the calming, sleep-enhancing, anti-anxiety benefits that will help ease treatments and symptoms.

Potential anti-cancer properties also exist in lavender, much like other oils that have been tested in lab settings. A 2014 study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer notes the “cytotoxic and apoptotic effects” that lavender has against certain cancer cells. (11) This, again, makes utilizing the oil’s therapeutic benefits even more exciting, as we simply don’t know what it could be accomplishing against the cancer itself!

That “we don’t know” factor sparks both exhilaration and reservation for the person who has cancer. Essential oils have countless known effects – and no doubt they have countless unknown effects, as well! These studies indicate great promise for cancer and essential oils, and I fully believe that they are doing amazing things that we can’t yet see.

With that said, until we do know exactly how to utilize them to their fullest potential, they are not a standalone treatment for cancer. They can and should be used alongside your primary plan in your daily life, however that looks these days, to ease symptoms, improve quality of life, and maybe – just maybe – take some cancer cells out along the way.