CANCER AND ITS TREATMENTS can bring their share of unwelcome physical and psychological effects, including depression, sleep disturbances, pain and fatigue, but a recent review published August 2022 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine suggests lavender aromatherapy may provide some relief for these symptoms.

Supporting Sleep

Almost half of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, which can exacerbate depression, anxiety and fatigue. Kathryn Shady, a hematology-oncology nurse at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware, says aromatherapy—combined with healthy sleep hygiene habits such as a consistent bedtime and a relaxing pre-bedtime routine—offers an inexpensive tool for improving sleep.

The review of 13 previously published studies—including a total of 838 people—found some cancer patients who used lavender aromatherapy reported less pain after surgery and during chemotherapy, better sleep quality and reduced anxiety. The study concludes that lavender aromatherapy can be safely incorporated as part of routine care and recommended to caregivers and patients in the home.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils from plants that can be either applied topically, such as massage oils, or diffused into the air. Oils from the lavender plant, in particular, have a reported calming effect on the nervous system.

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Kathryn Shady, a hematology-oncology nurse at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware, and her colleagues noticed a growing number of patients who brought aromatherapy tools—such as diffusers, roller balls and massage oils—during hospital stays. This motivated Shady, who led a study that was part of the review, and a team of nurses to learn how lavender aromatherapy could help patients. In the study, 40 patients who had cancer, including breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, slept with a lavender aromatherapy patch on the front of their hospital gowns or shirts. Some patients reported they experienced better sleep after wearing the patch, and 70% said they would try it again.

Side effects of aromatherapy are minimal, but patients should talk with their doctors prior to beginning use. Essential oils can cause skin irritation, and some, including lavender oil, may affect estrogen levels. Lavender aromatherapy may increase the effects of sedatives, hypnotic drugs and anticonvulsants, according to a patient resource published by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Additional Benefits

Lavender oil can help improve quality of life for patients with an ostomy bag.

Using lavender oil in an ostomy bag can help colorectal cancer patients with a permanent colostomy by reducing odor, in turn improving feelings about body image, sexuality and work. In a randomized clinical trial of 30 colorectal cancer patients published in 2019, those who used lavender oil reported higher scores on both ostomy adjustment and quality of life assessments than those who did not.

“It’s important to always discuss with your care team and make sure they know what you’re using,” Shady says. “I do think [aromatherapy] is good for anxiety and for sleep management, and it can also be looked at for nausea, depending on the patient. … This has potential impacts on patients and can improve what they experience on a day-to-day basis.” 

Jen Tota McGivney is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.