Essential oils are a type of complementary therapy for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They aren’t a traditional treatment like surgery or chemotherapy. However, some of these oils might help with managing symptoms like sleep or anxiety while you’re undergoing treatment.

Like other complementary therapies, essential oils are meant to be used along with the medical treatments your doctor prescribed, not in place of them.

Although these products are natural, some have risks. And many of the health claims associated with these oils have not been proven.

It’s important to understand the risks and benefits of any cancer treatment you use. Check with your doctor before trying essential oils or any other complementary therapy.

Essential oils are fragrant chemicals from flowers, plants, or trees. The oils are typically extracted from the plant by a crushing or steaming process.

These oils are highly concentrated. For example, it takes about 220 pounds of lavender flowers to create 1 pound of lavender essential oil.

Aromatherapy is a practice that uses these plant extracts to improve health and well-being. When essential oils bind to receptors in the part of the brain that processes smells, they can affect:

  • emotional responses
  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • breathing

Some people living with cancer use essential oils to relieve symptoms of the cancer itself and its treatments.

There’s no evidence at this point that essential oils prevent or treat cancer.

Some studies claim that these oils have “anti-cancer activity.” For example, one 2020 study found that lemongrass oil caused lung cancer cells to die.

French lavender has also shown potential for killing lung cancer cells. However, these studies were done on cancer cells in a petri dish or in mice.

We don’t yet know how these essential oils might affect cancer cells in the body.

There is preliminary evidence that aromatherapy might help with these symptoms of cancer and its treatments:

  • anxiety
  • nausea and vomiting
  • pain
  • sleep
  • stress

However, the research so far has been mixed. Some studies have found these oils helpful for cancer-related side effects, while other studies haven’t shown a clear benefit.

Many of the studies on aromatherapy for cancer have been too small and poorly designed to draw any real conclusions from them. In one 2017 study, women with cancer reported that aromatherapy massage improved their sleep, energy levels, pain, appetite, and mood. But the study had only 15 participants.

Larger and better-designed studies are needed to confirm whether, and how, essential oils might help with managing cancer symptoms.

Some of the most commonly used essential oils include:

  • cedarwood
  • eucalyptus
  • frankincense
  • ginger
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • peppermint
  • Roman chamomile
  • sweet marjoram
  • tea tree

Each one has a specific use. For example, Roman chamomile has been studied for anxiety. Ginger might help with nausea from chemotherapy. And lavender has a calming effect that may be good for improving anxiety, sleep, and pain.

You can buy essential oils at drug stores or online. Look for products that are pure, with no added ingredients.

Most essential oils are sold undiluted, meaning they are highly concentrated. You need to add the oil to a lotion or another type of oil to dilute it before use.

There are four main ways to use essential oils:

  • Breathe it in through the air. Add a few drops of essential oil to a room diffuser or vaporizer, which spreads the scent in a mist throughout the air.
  • Inhale it directly. Smell it directly from the bottle, or add the oil to a bath or a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam.
  • Apply it to your skin. Add a few drops of oils to lotion or a carrier oil, like coconut oil, and rub it into your skin.
  • Ingest (as directed). A few drops of some essential oils can be added to water or tea, but don’t ingest them unless the packaging for that specific product says it’s safe.

Some major cancer centers offer aromatherapy as part of a complementary care program. If you’re interested in trying this type of complementary therapy, ask your oncologist if your treatment center offers it.

Or you can ask for a referral to a qualified aromatherapist in your area.

Essential oils are generally safe when you use them as directed.

Yet these products can cause side effects like allergic reactions and skin irritation, especially if your skin is already more sensitive due to radiation therapy. Applying citrus oils to your skin before going outdoors can also increase your risk for sunburn.

Some of the most common side effects of essential oils include:

  • skin irritation or redness
  • coughing
  • trouble breathing

The specific risks depend on which essential oil you’re using.

If you have allergies or sensitive skin, test out a very small amount of the diluted oil on your skin before applying it to a larger area. Keep essential oils away from your eyes. And only ingest oils that are approved for use in that way.

Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with your cancer treatment, check with your oncologist before trying one of these products. It’s always safest to work with a trained aromatherapist when using essential oils for the first time.

Essential oils are plant-based chemicals that have shown potential for relieving cancer symptoms and treatment side effects such as nausea, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

These oils are meant to be used as an add-on to traditional NSCLC treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, not as a substitute.

Even though these products are natural, they can sometimes cause side effects. Check with your oncologist before trying essential oils or any other type of complementary therapy for NSCLC.