The Use of Aromatherapy in Cancer Treatment

By Gayle Walter, MPH
Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

Modern day aromatherapy entails the use of essential oils extracted from different parts of plants such as roots, barks, stalks, flowers, and leaves, and is one of the fastest-growing complementary therapies used today.1 Aromatherapy oils are taken into the body in a variety of ways: oral, through the skin, rectal or vaginal routes, or simply by smelling.  The basis of the action of aromatherapy is thought to be the same as modern use of prescription medications, such as muscle relaxers and sedatives, but in smaller doses. Basically, the chemical constituents of the essential oils are absorbed into the body, affecting particular physical processes.

One theory on how aromatherapy and essential oils work is by olfaction (smelling). According to this theory, smell receptors in the nose may respond to the smells of essential oils by sending chemical messages along nerve pathways to the brain’s limbic system. This affects moods and emotions by creating a calming effect to reduce stress and anxiety, which leads to reduced pain.2

The food and perfume industries are currently the largest users of essential oils, but aromatherapy may also have some therapeutic purposes. The emotional and psychological benefits of aromatherapy can be used for patients in many clinical situations, including those suffering chronic, life-threatening conditions such as cancer.  While there is a lack of scientific evidence proving that aromatherapy cures or prevents cancer, aromatherapy has shown to be a natural way to help cancer patients cope with stress, chronic pain, nausea, and depression.3 Some cancer patients ultimately experience a better quality of life when the pain is controlled through aromatherapy. The National Cancer Institute also reports that breathing the vapors of peppermint, ginger, and cardamom oil appears to relieve the nausea caused by chemotherapy and radiation.4

While a patient’s pain is normally controlled pharmacologically, it continues to be undertreated despite advances in pain management.5 Oncology nurses play a vital role in educating patients on the uses of complementary and alternative medicine, such as aromatheraphy, to assist with pain management. Cancer-related pain results from at least one of three basic causes: direct tumor involvement of organs, tissues, or bone; canter treatment effects from radiation or chemotherapy; and mechanisms unrelated to cancer or its treatment.6  Even though the use of clinical aromatherapy has yet to be studied extensively, its use has shown to be effective in pain management of cancer patients. Once the pain is effectively managed, the rest of the symptoms—such as stress, anxiety, and depression—could dissipate. The reduction of those symptoms can allow the patient to experience a higher quality of life.


1.Mark S. Micozzi, Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 3rd Ed. (St. Louis:  Saunders Elsevier, 2006).

2. American Cancer Society (2008). “Making Treatment Decisions: Aromatherapy,” (accessed April 13, 2009).

3. Ibid.

4. National Cancer Institute. “Aromatherapy and Essential Oils,” (accessed April 13, 2009).

5. C. Gatlin and L. Schulmeister, “When Medication is not Enough: Nonpharmacologic Management of Pain.” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 11 (2007): 699-704.

6. Ibid.

Gayle Walter, MPH

Gayle Walter is the chair of the Public Health programs at Kaplan University and teaches courses such as Contemporary Diet and Nutrition and Research Methods for Health Sciences.  She also works for the University of Dubuque in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences and Physical Education. Ms. Walter received her Master of Public Health from Walden University in 2007 and is currently enrolled in the doctoral program in public health with an emphasis on community health promotion and education. She currently resides in Dubuque, Iowa, with her family.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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