How Breast Cancer Changed My Life—and How Essential Oils Helped

There's long been a discussion as to whether alternative medicine or Western/conventional medicine is the most beneficial. When I was diagnosed with Stage 1, non-aggressive breast cancer in 1998, I experienced both—and they both had a hand in making this time in my life one of deep reflection and profound change.

I found the lump myself and underwent a lumpectomy to have it removed, and the doctor also did a lymph node removal to see if the cancer had spread. Thankfully it hadn't, and so I went through daily radiation treatments for six weeks.

The actual process of radiation treatment is painless and only takes about a minute. The side effects come slowly, built up over time in the skin tissue. Redness and irritation are common, and they aren't so bad in comparison to some other side effects of cancer treatments. But they do take a toll, and since the effect is cumulative, they grow with every treatment. Fatigue is also a major side effect of radiation treatment, and I used aromatherapy blends to help combat it. I also used topical treatments on my scars to help with healing.

Now, before I describe how I used aromatherapy, essential oils and aloe throughout this process, I want to point out that doctors ask you not to apply anything to the irradiated area. That's not because it has any effect on the treatment—it doesn't. Instead, it's because the radiotherapists put little marks on you to show where the radiation beams should be directed. I opted to have the tiny pin marks tattooed on, because they rubbed off anyway throughout the day, even when I wasn't applying anything.

Both my oncologist and radiologist were aware of my profession, and they approved my use of complementary and self-administered treatment.

The irritation and the incisions

First, I applied aloe (Aloe barbadensis) straight from the plant. The doctors warned me against applying anything with alcohol, and I wanted to stay away from preservatives found in many commercially prepared aloe lotions, so the plant was the best way to go. This alone was very soothing and helpful to the area.

I also used a water spray on the irradiated breast, and this is where the essential oils came into play. I used a four-ounce spray bottle filled with distilled water and added equal amounts of Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) and Blue Tansy (Tanacetum annuum). I sprayed this onto the skin after radiation and after my morning shower, and I upped the amount as the skin became increasingly tender. I used this every day during treatment and continued for a month after the radiation had ended.  

The redness persisted but the severe irritation ended two weeks after the treatment.  Though skeptical of my brand of medicine, the radiologist admitted that my skin faired better than most, and that he was amazed by the lack of burn.

As for the incisions, I had both a 1-inch and 3-inch incision from each of the removal procedures. I applied Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) and Artemisia (Artemisia arborescens, high chamazulene, Pacific Northwest variety) using a 50:50 ratio and diluted at 10% in fractionated coconut oil. I believe this helped with healing and preventing any inflammation or infection. Thanks to my topical treatment and an excellent plastic surgeon (see—complementary!) I barely have scarring now.

Fatigue and mood

I also used aromatherapy to help with the fatigue and emotional side effects of a 6-week radiation treatment. My afternoon blend included stimulatory oils like Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, camphor variety), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), and Basil (Ocimum basilicum), which I put in an air diffuser.

When I wanted to rest, I used blends containing Lavender (Lavendula officinalis), Neroli (Citrus aurantium), Rose (Rosa damascena), and Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens). Out of those, my favorite was Geranium, and that was most often in the diffuser. I also put 5-10 drops of this oil in my bath, and these practices really helped with my moods. Cancer and cancer treatment are very difficult on a person's well-being, and having my favorite oils there to help me was an immense comfort.

I used Rose in times of depression and confusion, as well. To demonstrate how much psychology plays a part in this, I'll tell you that I used Rose after my mother passed away. So I had developed a cognitive association with using rose when I needed to work through grief, which helped the oil stimulate that response in me again.

What I learned

While I was finding my own treatment and following the advice of my doctors, I was also receiving an immense outpouring of love and support from the aromatherapy community. I could feel them out there, sending healing vibes and providing unseen but much felt protection. I learned how important that network is, and how healing it can be to have a friendly and open support system.

I also learned how to rest, because it was medically required of me. I'm sure anyone who is active can understand this, but sometimes I didn't know how to stop and allow my body to recover and recuperate. Once the fatigue set in, I had to or risk prolonging recovery. I also learned that sometimes I physically can't do everything I want to do, and asking for help isn't shameful. That was a fantastic life lesson for me, and one I wish upon everyone.

I've also become much more active in volunteer work since then, and I participate in several cancer groups and speak about my experiences with aromatherapy as complementary treatment.

I truly believe both medicines can combine and be powerful tools for those suffering from cancer and undergoing cancer treatment.