11 May 2012

Aromatherapy and cancer

Essential oils are widely applied in supportive care to manage the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment. Aromatherapy expert Mariet du Plessis gives us the lowdown.


Essential oils are widely applied in supportive care to manage the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment. 

Health24's Carine Visagie chats to Mariet du Plessis, a registered therapeutic aromatherapist and expert in the field of aromatherapy and cancer, to learn more.

Q: What is the role of complementary and alternative medicine in the treatment of cancer?

As cancer is a multidimensional and multifaceted disease, a holistic approach to treatment is important. Complementary health can offer an enormous supportive and supplementary role to cancer patients and their medical treatments.

I offer my patients a package of holistic and complementary health therapies that includes:

  • Therapeutic aromatherapy
  • Therapeutic massage therapy
  • Dr Vodder’s lymph drainage and therapeutic reflexology, along with psychoneuroendoimmunology (PNI) and stress relief
  • Emotional release
  • Cranio-sacral balancing
  • Electromagnetic vibrational energy healing
  • Healing touch
  • Colour therapy
  • Crystal therapy
  • Visualisation
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Pranic breathing

Each therapy has its own, but also a contributory, role in helping the patient to obtain optimal quality of life, health and wellbeing. The definition of health isn't merely an absence of disease. It's about being holistically and harmoniously balanced on all levels – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

It's also important to eliminate stress, toxins from chemotherapy and/or radiation, and dead cancer cells, and to provide relief from the various side effects of the treatments. This includes immune stimulation and enhancement of overall energy and quality of life.

Q: Which of the disciplines do patients find especially helpful for general enhancement of energy?

The combination of all the therapies that I do really work together to help a patient find optimum improvement of general health and wellbeing. But I would say the combination of aromatherapeutic massage therapy and therapeutic reflexology is most helpful for general enhancement of energy.

Q: How do you use aromatherapy to improve the quality of life of your cancer patients?

I'm trained in all three aromatherapy systems, namely:

  • the French system, which focuses mainly on the medicinal and internal use of essential oils and aromatic medicine;
  • the German system, which emphasises the therapeutic effect of essential oils on the brain, nervous system, hormonal system, emotions and psycho-spiritual level through olfacto-therapy (involving aroma/smell); and
  • the British system, which entails the external use of essential oils and aromatherapy, including massage, lymph drainage and stress relief.

Q: Is the one aromatherapy system better than the others in treating cancer or to relieve certain body systems?

No, all three systems work together to form a comprehensive aromatherapeutic care system, which also depends on the needs of the patient and the method of application.

Aromatherapeutic massage therapy is also aromatic medicine, which involves a specific mode of application and specific essential oils. This is the general aromatherapy method, or the British system. But should a patient need stronger aromatic care by means of an aromatic medicinal blend (the French system), this can be offered to them.

For instance, if a patient has a respiratory infection, aromatherapeutic massage therapy alone will not effectively take care of the infection and the patient will need an aromatic medicinal blend that must be applied by means of all the therapeutic interventions and methods, both internally and externally.

The French system entails the medicinal application of essential oils, where the focus is mainly on internal conditions, infections, inflammation etc. In the French system, the word “aromatherapy” literally means the therapeutic, medicinal effect of essential oils on the cells and tissues of the body.

Q: Is it necessary for cancer patients to always consult a qualified aromatherapy therapist if they're interested in using these techniques, or is it okay for them to apply some of the principles on their own at home?

The answer is both "yes" and "no".

Therapeutic aromatherapy is a recognised medical profession and patients should be informed about the relevant and important aspects thereof. Aromatic medicine can only be practised by a fully qualified registered therapist. However, patients can then use aromatic medicinal blends under guidance on a home-care basis.

Q: You mention that therapeutic aromatherapy is a recognised medical profession. Is this really true, or is aromatherapy merely recognised by the medical profession?

Therapeutic aromatherapy, therapeutic massage therapy and therapeutic reflexology are statutory, recognised complementary health professions registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa, along with all the other natural and complementary health professions such as homeopathy, naturopathy, phytotherapy, chiropractic etc.

Therapeutic aromatherapy, therapeutic massage therapy and therapeutic reflexology are also registered with the Board of Health Care Funders (BHF), which issues practice numbers.

Unfortunately, the process involving the issue of tariff codes for medical aids has not been completed yet. I was invited to attend a meeting on the coding system for the healthcare fraternity, which was hosted by the South African Health Professions Association (SAHPA). The heart-warming response and acceptance of the complementary health professions by the medical profession was indeed recognition of our place in the healthcare fraternity.

I also know that medical students are now being exposed to complementary health professions. Although we are still in the forming years of integrating with the South African medical profession, especially regarding aromatic medicine (with the help of leaders in this field such as Dr D. Penoel and Dr D. Baudoux from Pranarôm), the process can continue and progress in future.

Q: Are there any dangers associated with the use of aromatherapy in conjunction with conventional cancer treatments (i.e. radiation and/or chemotherapy)?

No, provided that only 100% pure, validated, chemo-typed essential oils are used in a way that is therapeutically correct. This means applying the correct dosage in the correct manner, which includes considering certain medical side effects of some essential oils, and taking the patient’s physical condition into account.

One way in which the beneficial effects of aromatherapy are demonstrated is by the positive reactions of my cancer patients. They seem to glow and are well balanced on all levels, maintaining a good quality of life, vitality and general wellbeing.

Q: Are 100% pure, validated, chemo-typed essential oils available to the public? If so, where?

I can only speak for the companies and suppliers that I use, which provide me with validated, guaranteed, chemo-typed, complete-chemical-analysis essential oils. These are Pranarôm for international essential oils and Zinziba, which provides me with the indigenous fynbos essential oils.

Unfortunately, the public isn't always aware that essential oils are very easily adulterated. In South Africa, there are no control mechanisms and essential oils that haven't been chemically analysed are offered to the market and are readily available. It's important to note that these low-grade essential oils have no place in the practice of professional therapeutic aromatherapy and aromatic medicine.

At the end of February, you will be taking part in a discussion on aromatherapy myths at the Heart and Soul Aromatherapy Congress in the Drakensberg. Could you give us a hint as to what you'll be focusing on?

There are a few myths regarding aromatherapy and cancer, which stem mainly from the beauty industry and which have no medical validation. An example is the belief that cancer might spread if a cancer patient is massaged.

This is completely untrue, as the mutation of cancer cells are not dependant on touch or the movement of the body - a fact that is confirmed by the medical profession, my oncologists, as well as Dr Penoel from France, who is my aromatic medicinal teacher. It's furthermore confirmed by my own experience and the reaction of my patients.

(Carine Visagie, Health24, updated March 2011)

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