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Aromatherapy and Music Therapy

by Linda Wasmer Andrews

You know the peaceful feeling you get from smelling fresh-baked cookies or just-cut grass. And you know the pleasure that comes from listening to a beautiful symphony or your favorite love song. Stimulating the senses of smell and hearing can reduce stress and bring about feelings of well-being. Aromatherapy and music therapy are two complementary approaches that exploit this fact to enhance the lives of breast cancer survivors. While they can't prevent or treat cancer, they can help make life more relaxed and enjoyable.


Aromatherapy is the practice of using fragrant substances distilled from plants, called essential oils, to improve a person's mood or health. These essential oils are either inhaled or applied to the skin.

For inhalation, a few drops of the very concentrated substances are added to steaming water or to devices, such as nebulizers and diffusers, that spread the oil molecules throughout the air. For application to the skin, the essential oils are diluted in a pure vegetable oil, such as sweet almond oil or grapeseed oil, then used during massage or added to a bath. Essential oils differ from ordinary perfumes because they are derived from plants, while perfumes are artificially created or contain artificial substances.

Aromatherapy was used by many ancient civilizations, including those of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China. Its modern form originated in France in the early 1900s, then spread to the United States in the 1980s. Early research has suggested that aromatherapy may help people cope with chronic pain, stress, and depression. There also have been reports that inhaled peppermint, ginger, and cardomon oil may help reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but this has not been proven by scientific studies.

Scent-sible precautions

Essential oils should never be taken internally, because many are poisonous. They also shouldn't be used undiluted on the skin or left on the skin for prolonged periods, since they can cause allergic reactions or irritation in some people. When using a new oil for the first time, it's smart to do a skin test on a small area of skin. Apply a bandage and wait 24 hours to see if any type of reaction occurs before trying it on a larger area.

Music therapy

Music therapy is the use of music to promote healing and a sense of well-being. The soothing power of music can be employed in a number of ways, whether listening to a recording or playing your own. Music therapists are trained health care professionals who use music therapeutically to reduce pain and other symptoms, relieve stress, and enhance overall wellness. Today there are about 5,000 professional music therapists in the United States. To find a qualified one in your area, e-mail the American Music Therapy Association. Include your postal mail address in the message.

Research has shown that music therapy combined with anti-nausea drugs can help ease the nausea and vomiting of people on high-dose chemotherapy. Several studies also have found that music therapy can help relieve acute pain. When used along with painkilling drugs, it can decrease the pain's severity. In some cases, it can even help people reduce the amount of pain medication they need. In addition, music therapy may help lower high blood pressure, reduce depression, and decrease sleep problems. Although it's still not certain how music has these effects, one theory is that it distracts the mind from pain and anxiety.

Additional resources on aromatherapy and music therapy:

American Cancer Society - A reliable source of cancer-related information about aromatherapy and music therapy.
American Music Therapy Association - The professional organization for music therapists in the United States.
AromaWeb - A commercial website that provides a good introduction to aromatherapy and essential oils.


American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Methods. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2000; pp. 52-53, 82-83.

American Music Therapy Association.

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.