As professional aromatherapists, we do not 'treat' cancer, or any other disease of the human body. The disease is almost irrelevant to us as we seek to treat the person as a whole. When we undertake a thorough consultation, including a full body and health assessment, then we will discover information about our client, their lifestyle, and their health emotionally, physically and spiritually, past and present. We then seek to help that client in as many areas of their life as we can. This usually involves taking all the information we have about the client into account, and choosing a blend of oil that is most likely to affect the emotional state, followed by physical imbalance. We cannot claim to treat a client for cancer. We can however, claim to treat a client.
Massage and cancer
There is no research to prove the myth that massage can carry cancer cells throughout lymphatic tissue to other sites in the body, although it is recommended that deep tissue massage is not used on someone with cancer. Gentle aromatherapy massage is designed to relax and gently detoxify the body. In cases of localised cancer, it is perhaps best to avoid that area.
Obviously, a light, gentle massage within the client's pain threshold, given over a period of time that is suitable to the patient, is going to be beneficial rather than harmful. The lymphatic system is massaged slightly by muscular action of the body, and since simple, gentle massage would be no more stimulating to the body than ordinary, muscular action resulting from movement, then the results would be very similar. In other words, the likelihood of spreading cancer cells with gentle massage is no greater than with normal exercise.
The value of massage on a patient with cancer is enormous. The sense of touch is one of the most basic of human senses, and helps to create a feeling of being loved and comforted through the illness. When we talk about massaging somebody with cancer we generally assume whole body massage. It is usually advised never to massage over the site of the cancer or over an area receiving radiotherapy treatment and, if in doubt, just to massage one small part of the body. A simple hand massage or foot massage, for instance, can bring great stress relief and help the patient emotionally. It is important not to massage over the site of radiation because the skin is readily broken down. Areas affected by radiation should be avoided at all costs, and be allowed to repair naturally (Tisserand and Balacs 1995: 101-102).
Horrigan (1991) offers the opinion that surface massage will not make the cancer grow due an increased blood supply, nor make the cancer spread, nor interfere with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, nor cure cancer by natural means (Price & Price: 1995). Movements and stokes that can be used with a light rhythmical touch and stroking, are effleurage, passive exercises, gentle pulling and stretching (McNamara 1995).
A type of massage only used by professional masseurs/cancer specialists is manual lymph drainage to stimulate the circulation of lymph fluids, encouraging the flow of lymph without force, thereby enhancing the immune system. Reflexology, with very gentle pressure applied to the relevant points, can also help to relax the patient.
Essential oils and cancer
In the normal low dosage usually adopted by trained aromatherapists there should be no risk factor. Do not use unresearched oils or unfamiliar oils. There is no evidence that either essential oils or aromatherapy has caused cancer in humans (Tisserand & Balacs 1995: 102). Valnet cites useful oils as being: Syzigium aromaticum (clove), Cupressus sempervirens (cypress) and Pelargonium graveolens (geranium).
Lavender and citrus oils of a good quality are also useful for relieving stress. As a general rule, oils that would be useful for children are gentle enough to be used on cancer patients.
Radiotherapy is an area where people have hesitated to use essential oils although many trials in France show essential oils themselves are helpful when used during radiotherapy to help reduce or prevent deep burning and scarring. Oils like niaouli, tea tree, cajuput and lavender have been used to prevent aromatherapy burning (Price & Price:1995: 197).
With chemotherapy there are mixed views as to whether essentials oils should or should not be used. However, since chemotherapy treatment often produces a feeling of nausea, sometimes a pleasant smell can help. There is no reason here to stop treating a client just because they have cancer or are having chemotherapy, as we are treating the whole person. It is good, however, to remember that if the feeling of nausea is overwhelming, appropriate scents are chosen to help with the stress relief.
There is no evidence of any interaction of any essential oils with phytotoxic drugs. This means that essential oils will not interfere with anti-cancer drugs, and neither will anti-cancer drugs have any effect on the essential oils. It is simply, therefore, a matter of choice whether the patients receives massage with or without essential oils, or even essential oils without massage, particularly when treating areas where radiation will be or has been carried out.
It is wise to avoid oils that are known skin irritants and to use normal to low doses. However, if the consultation has been complete, the oils chosen for the treatment should reflect this expertise and there will not be any oils chosen that are not the most effective for that particular client.
We can conclude then, that in the case of weak clients with advanced cancer, we should halve the normal strength for our essential oil blends in a carrier. Massage with a normal to light pressure may be used on specific restricted areas. Only very gentle massage should be used for a full body treatment, and permission must be sought from the client's doctor to use essential oils on a person with cancer, especially on an area receiving radiotherapy. For a person receiving chemotherapy, specific area or full body massage can be given, bearing in mind the precaution indicated by the type and site of the cancer the massage blend should be at a reduced normal strength (Price & Price 1995: 197 – 198).
McNamara P; Massage for people with cancer; The Cancer Support Centre, Wandsworth; 1995.
Price S & Price L; Aromatherapy for Health Professionals; Churchill Livingstone 1995.
Tisserand R & Balacs T; Essential oil safety; Churchill Livingstone 1995.
Valnet J Dr 1980; The practice of aromatherapy; The C W Daniel Company Ltd, Saffron Walden, Essex.
By Penny Price
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