Cancer is a term that is used to refer to a number of conditions where the body's cells begin to grow and reproduce in an uncontrollable way. This rapid growth of cancerous cells is known as a malignant tumour. These cells can then invade and destroy healthy tissue, including organs.

Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body before spreading to other parts. This process is known as metastatis. Cancer is a common condition and is a serious health problem, both in the UK and across the world. It is estimated that 7.6 million people in the world died of cancer in 2007. In the UK, cancer is responsible for 126,000 deaths per year. One in four people die from cancer.

It must be stated straight away that aromatherapists do not 'treat' cancer. It would be both unethical and illegal for them to claim to do so. They can, though, offer immense comfort, support and reinforcement for cancer patients, within the framework of treatment that they have chosen. Whether that treatment follows the orthodox route of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy or one or more of the alternatives, such as dietary therapy, visualisation, healing, etc., is a decision that only the person with cancer can make, but whatever the choice, aromatherapy can be a valuable additional therapy provided that the safeguards described below are followed.

First, essential oils should not be used at the same time as chemotherapy. Nor should they be used following a course of chemotherapy, at least until such time as the body has been cleared of all residues of cytotoxic drugs by such means as fl cleansing diet, and this stage may not be reached until some time after treatment. Opinions vary as to how long this might be, with estimates ranging from weeks to years. Certainly, much will depend on how many courses of chemotherapy have been given, and for how long. The decision in each case must be based on a full knowledge of all the facts, plus observation of the patient's general state.

The second safeguard is that both professional ethics and the safety and well-being of the patient require that no treatment is undertaken without the knowledge and consent of the doctor carrying out the principal treatment. Some doctors are opposed to any massage for people with cancer, fearing that because of the stimulating effect that massage can have or the lymphatic system, it may accelerate the migration of cancer cells via that system, leading to the formation of secondary cancers. However, it would seem that these fears stem from a knowledge of the more vigorous forms of massage, and with the growth of 'soft' massage techniques, many doctors now feel that such gentle therapy cannot harm their patients, and can only do good in terms of relaxation and increased comfort. Massage should not, however, be used for patients with Hodgkins Disease or bone cancer.

Certainly gentle massage with essential oils is being used to help terminal patients in hospices. Aromatherapy helps to relieve pain and reduce the amount of oedema in limbs following operations. Lavender oil, in particular, can be used to prevent and treat pressure sores as well as to aid sleep. Many of these patients are too weak to take more than a brief, gentle massage to the face and head, or to the hands and feet, but the caring touch of the therapist, combined with the essential oils gives both physical and emotional comfort. Some cancer patients, especially if they have been mutilated by major surgery, or burnt by radiation treatment, feel that their bodies are repugnant or unclean, and for them human touch is even more important, as a way of assuring them that they are human with as much dignity and value as anybody else.

Certain essential oils have been described in books as anti-cancer agents, but their action has not been proven. Neither has it been disproved, and the traditional uses of plants have been shown to be valid often enough that we should consider these oils good ones to use in conjunction with the major forms of treatment. They include Clove, Cypress, Garlic, Geranium, Hyssop, Onion, Sage and Tarragon {Valnet) and Bergamot, Cedar and Eucalyptus in addition to those listed by Valnet (Tisserand). Violet leaf is mentioned in other sources.

Two oils of the Melaleuca family, Niaouli and Tea tree, have been used in France to reduce surface burning during cobalt radiation treatment. A thin film of essential oil is applied to the skin over the area to be treated, before the radiation therapy and has been shown to give some protection. Lavender oil has been used in Norway to treat radiation burns, and . has reduced scarring. It has also been used, with Rosemary oil, to stimulate regrowth of hair when the hair has fallen out after chemotherapy, subject, of course, to the safeguards already described.

However, valuable though these physical benefits of essential I oils can be, it is on the emotional plane that aromatherapy perhaps has the most to offer as part of a holistic approach to cancer. The uplifting, calming, soothing and antidepressant oils, combined with caring support from a sensitive therapist can add to the quality of life in a very special way, whatever the final outcome.

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