Natural Complementary Therapies to Help You Get Through Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast Cancer Awareness month is a good time of year to reflect on how far we’ve come in cancer treatment and how far we have to go. According to breastcancer.org breast cancer death rates have been decreasing since 1989, especially in women under 50 years old. And yet by the end of 2018, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women in the United States alone.
Earlier detection of breast cancer through regular screenings, as the result of increased awareness, is one contributing factor to the decrease in death rates. Advanced methods of treating breast cancer (and cancer in general) is of course another crucial factor. However, as far as breast cancer treatment has come, it is by no means a pleasant or easy experience.
A long list of the Side of Effects of Cancer Treatment provided by the National Cancer Instituteincludes fatigue, pain, nausea and vomiting among others. There are many complementary therapies available to help breast cancer patients cope with these distressing symptoms. In this post, we’ll explore a wide array of complementary therapies for breast cancer patients, including aromatherapy, and which ones can be aided by the use of essential oils.
What is Complementary Therapy?
The first thing to understand is that complementary therapy(CT) is meant to be used in conjunction with conventional breast cancer treatments, not as a replacement. Complementary therapies, like aromatherapy with essential oils, are meant to provide extra support for breast cancer patients during a physically and emotionally difficult time.
Cancer.net has a great summary of reasons for cancer patients to use complementary therapies: “Reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, improve their physical and emotional well-being, improve their recovery from cancer.” Essential oils cannot cure the side effects of breast cancer treatment. However, when used as a CT, essential oils can be used to help manage side effect symptoms and help breast cancer patients feel more comfortable during treatment.
How to Use Essential Oils in Complementary Therapy
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to enhance physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Essential oils can be inhaled via direct methods, vaporized with an essential oil diffuser, or mixed with nourishing carrier oils for use in therapeutic massage and baths. Essential oil aromatherapy for breast cancer patients can be used to help deal with side effects from treatment and improve overall quality of life.
Essential oils in aromatherapy work on the body through inhalation by helping to create moods and feelings with different aromas. When inhaling essential oils, the chemical components bind with your olfactory bulb receptors. Functional imaging studies have shown this can influence the limbic system and emotional pathways. There are four basic ways to practice aromatherapy by inhaling essential oils that may be helpful during breast cancer treatment.
Using an Essential Oil Diffuser
The most popular way to practice aromatherapy is to use an essential oil diffuser. When using an oil diffuser during breast cancer treatment, we recommend using a no-heat cool-mist diffuser. There are many other types of diffusers to use for essential oils, but cool-mist diffusers use ultrasonic pulses instead of a heat source to create mist.
Every diffuser will have its own instructions, but in general, you fill the machine with water, and add 5-7 drops of essential oils. The oils are then sufficiently diluted in the water and dispersed in mist.
Direct Inhalation Methods
Aromatherapy jewelry: Oil diffusers are great for filling a whole room, but aromatherapy jewelry is a simple way to use essential oils on-the-go. Aromatherapy jewelry is specifically designed for use with essential oils and generally involves a simple design with absorbent materials that release the essential oils aromas over time. Simply add a few drops of essential oils to the absorbent part and inhale deeply.
Simple tissue technique: Using a tissue or handkerchief is an inexpensive way to practice aromatherapy on the go, very similar to using aromatherapy jewelry. Add 2-4 drops of essential oils on a tissue or handkerchief. Wave the tissue in front of your face or hold 5-6 inches from your nose. Take 2-3 breathes, inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Therapeutic Topical Essential Oils Application
Using essential oils topically works similarly to the direct inhalation method, in that the beneficial aromas are inhaled as they are released from the product you are applying. Essential oils are powerful natural botanical extracts. Even when you are inhaling them they are are diluted (by water vapor or oxygen) but they especially must be diluted when applying directly to your skin.
When using essential oils topically as a complementary therapy for breast cancer, we recommend using a 0.5% dilution rate in comparison to dilution rates for other uses. Below are several ways you can dilute essential oils with natural options that nourish the skin and are free of harsh chemicals.
Whenever you choose to use essential oils topically it’s always a good idea to do a small skin patch test for allergies first. Even more so if you plan on incorporating them in your complementary therapy to deal with breast cancer side effects.
Using essential oils for massage: Massage is a breast cancer complementary therapy in and of itself. It just feels good and sometimes that is the best you can do for yourself in recovery— just feel good. Using essential oils to make your own massage oil is like getting a two-for-one by adding in the benefits of the specific essential oils you choose.
Nourishing carrier oils like jojoba oil and argan oil are all natural, plant-based oils that can be rubbed into your skin for moisturizing and other beauty uses. They also provide lubrication to reduce friction during massage. Essential oils are not oils in the same way carrier oils are: they are not lubricants and they are extremely concentrated botanical extracts that can cause irritation if applied by themselves.
For use in massage, use 1 ounce of carrier oil for every 3 drops of essential oils and mix well before using. Rubbing the massage fully into your skin will have moisturizing effects as well as therapeutic tension release, or you may rinse off as desired.
Therapeutic baths with essential oils: It’s a very common misconception that adding essential oils to bath water will dilute them, but this is not true. As we all know, oil and water do not mix. When essential oils are added to bathwater, the droplets tend to group together and cling directly to skin which has the same effect as if you applied them full strength.
To use essential oils in a bath, you can use the same dilution rate and method as used for massage oil. You can also mix a few drops of essential oils with regular epsom salts or sea salt soaks. Add 6 drops of essential oils for every quarter cup of salts. Always mix your essential oils with your bath salts or oils before adding to your bath water.
Create your own therapeutic personal fragrance: Many people enjoy using essential oils as personal fragrance simply because they smell nice. Yes, essential oils do smell nice, but you could easily create your own essential oil fragrance to help you feel better during recovery.
Essential oil rollerballs are an easy and safe way to apply essential oils to your body whenever you like. Mix 3 drops of essential oils and 1 oz of carrier oil (for a 0.5% dilution rate) in a rollerball applicator. Shake well to mix and before each application. Apply to pulse points at wrists and temples. If you know someone having a difficult time with breast cancer treatment, these also make a thoughtful, personalized gift.
The Best Essential Oils for Complementary Therapy
Remember, the goal of using essential oils during breast cancer treatment should always be to help you feel more comfortable and improve your quality of life. Below is a list of essential oils that may be helpful to use when coping with pain, nausea, and mood side effects from medical treatment.
Essential Oils for Pain Management:
Lavender: One reason aromatherapy is considered a useful complementary therapy for pain management, is because it encourages a deep level of relaxation which has been shown to alter perceptions of pain. One of the most prominent effects of lavender oil inhalation is a sense of relaxation exhibited in studies by significant decreases of blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature.
Peppermint:Recent neurophysiological studies indicate there may be some science behind the traditional use of peppermint essential oils for headache pain management. A preparation of peppermint oil and ethanol (rubbing alcohol) or a more traditional mix of peppermint and carrier oil placed at the temples may temporarily alleviate headache pains. Deeply inhaling peppermint essential oil also may also provide temporary relief. This can be useful to help breast cancer patients feel more comfortable while waiting for other pain medications to take effect.
Essential Oils for Nausea
Peppermint: The use of peppermint for stomach issues goes back to the Egyptians in 1000 B.C. Modern researchers are now investigating peppermint oil inhalation as a viable treatment for postoperative nausea and vomiting.
If chemotherapy is a part of your breast cancer treatment, and the hospital will allow it, diffusing peppermint essential oils during chemo may help with the nausea and vomiting. If you can’t diffuse during treatment, sprinkling a tissue with peppermint oil and deeply inhaling can provide the same stomach-calming effect.
Mood Boosting Essential Oils
Frankincense: Frankincense essential oils have a long connection with spirituality reaching back thousands of years. A gently warm and woodsy scent with a hint of spice, frankincense is commonly used in various spiritual and religious practices to encourage emotional healing, cleansing negative energy, and opening oneself to enlightenment.
Sweet Orange & Tangerine: Citrus essential oils are widely used in aromatherapy to promote feelings of joy and uplift the spirit. Sweet orange and tangerine essential oils, with their brightly sweet refreshing scent connect with positive scent memories of fruit.
Breast Cancer & Essential Oils Quick List
Lavender essential oils - pain management, relaxation
Peppermint essential oils - nausea, pain management
Frankincense essential oils - emotional healing
Sweet orange & tangerine essential oils - uplifting, joyous
Other Types of Complementary Therapies for Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast cancer recovery is a long road with many challenges. There are many natural CTs that patients can use to cope with treatment side effects besides aromatherapy with essential oils. In some cases, essential oils can be added to other forms of CT to help breast cancer patients restore a sense of well-being and heal themselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Exercise for cancer patients is a relatively new form of complementary therapy that began being explored and implemented in the 1960s. Since then, the medical community has widely accepted that physical activity can improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients during and after treatment. Specifically, engaging in physical activity helped breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Psychological distress and fatigue were also reduced during radiotherapy treatment and after peripheral blood stem cell transplants involving high-dose chemotherapy.
While the benefits of physical activity for breast cancer patients may be clear, it can feel impossible to stay motivated when you don’t feel well. Diffusing essential oils for motivation can keep you in a positive frame of mind and help you get up and going. Staying motivated sounds like a small thing, but it can make all the difference in your recovery experience.
Sharp and clear essential oils like refreshing tea tree can help you get up and going with purely invigorating aromas. However, part of staying motivated is to find the joy in small experiences. This diffuser blend also incorporates citrus essential oils to inspire uplifting, joyous feelings— smelling like a delicious margarita is just an added bonus.
Motivation Margarita Essential Oils Blend
3 drops lime essential oils
2 drops grapefruit essential oils
1 drops tea tree essential oils
1 drop tangerine essential oils
Using acupuncture in cancer care can help breast cancer patients deal with several treatment side effects. In addition to pain, nausea, fatigue and mood side effects, breast cancer treatment can also cause neutropenia which increases chances of infection and dry mouth (xerostomia). Acupuncture has been shown to help with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, neutropenia, fatigue and radiation-induced xerostomia.
Using mental focus, controlled breathing and body movements to relax body and mind (mind-body practices) has many benefits for breast cancer patients. Specifically, mind-body practices can help when it comes to stress management. It’s hard to imagine many situations more stressful than breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, yet stress management is critical.
Not only does chronic stress affect almost every biological system in our bodies, there is evidence stress and breast cancer metastasis are interrelated. Mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, quigong, meditation, music therapy, and massage can all help breast cancer patients learn how to relax in stressful situations.
As mentioned above, lavender essential oils are the most relaxing and peaceful of all, and there are many blends for relaxation you can make with them. Diffusing essential oils to promote a bright joyous sense of peacefulness and emotional healing during your mind-body practice can give you an extra relaxation boost.
Quiet Comfort Essential Oils Blend
3 drops lavender essential oils
2 drops frankincense essential oils
2 drops tangerine essential oils
Emotional turmoil and physical pain are not the best aides to mental focus, which is a key part of mind-body practices. Diffusing essential oils that help promote mental clarity may help breast cancer patients get into the right mindset for mind-body practices. In fact, aromatherapy and yoga are often practiced together.
Crystal Clarity Mental Focus Blend
3 drops eucalyptus essential oils
2 drops frankincense essential oils
2 drops pine needle essential oils
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) discusses nutrition therapy for cancer care as a way to “help cancer patients keep a healthy body weight, maintain strength, keep body tissue healthy, and decrease side effects both during and after treatment.” Cancer itself, and cancer treatment, can both cause malnutrition that weakens the patient and lessens the ability to fight infection.
During and after breast cancer treatment it is helpful to have a registered dietician as part of your medical team. Nutrition therapy from a registered dietician can help malnutrition prevention and recovery from anorexia and cachexia related to breast cancer or its treatment. Breast cancer patients may find more nutrition therapy information from the American Cancer Society as well as this helpful cancer nutrition guide from the the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Early detection and advancement in cancer treatment are saving the lives of more breast cancer patients than ever before. During Breast Cancer Awareness month, it’s important to celebrate these gains, commit to further increasing survival rates and continue to help breast cancer patients increase their quality of life and comfort during treatment.
We believe essential oils can do a lot of awesome things in our everyday lives, but they can’t cure cancer. Until we reach a cure, the best we can do is help breast cancer patients live the best life they can. One of the ways to do that is to use essential oils to help ease treatment side effects on the road to recovery.
Another way to help breast cancer patients live their best lives is to help provide financial support during treatment. Donating to The Pink Fund helps provide breast cancer patients with non-medical cost-of-living expenses so they can focus on healing.
Of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is also a great time to contribute to other organizations doing the difficult day-to-day work to end breast cancer such as the Susan G. Komen organization, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
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