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It's Our Turn: Did frankincense oil help my sister?

Author Karen Tolkkinen, at left, with sister Barb Tolkkinen.

It's May, and amazingly, my sister Barb is still alive.

I went to stay with her in February, after the hospice team said she had perhaps six weeks left, or a couple months at best.

When I arrived at her small Twin Cities apartment, it was obvious that my presence was needed. The ovarian cancer she had been diagnosed with six years earlier had taken its toll. She was sleeping a lot. Canceling get-togethers with old friends. Using a walker. She could barely express herself, and we feared the cancer had moved into her brain. She wouldn't even watch TV, preferring instead to look at the snow on the branches outside her window. She was giving her things away.

It was that way for a couple of weeks.

Then, one Friday, I noticed she wasn't sleeping as much.

The following day, when family came to visit, she wasn't only alert, but hopping about, getting our dad things to eat and drink. She laughed heartily at all the jokes and cracked her own. The next day, she went out to eat with friends. They reported back that she didn't stumble for words at all. One of them brought her grocery shopping and told me that she was able to walk around the entire store, leaning on a shopping cart for support.

"I don't think I need to be here," I told the hospice team. "Barb is doing great!"

The hospice nurse and a social worker came to the apartment to see for themselves. After a thorough assessment, they agreed that once again, Barb could live by herself. I could head home to live with my husband and our son.

What had caused this amazing turn-around?

Maybe the effects of chemotherapy were wearing off. Maybe the hospice team had gotten her medication just right. Maybe having me around helped. Maybe prayer worked. Or, maybe, it was the bottle of frankincense oil from a friend.

If you haven't heard of essential oils, they're extracts from a variety of plants, such as lavender, lemon and peppermint. Some people use them to supplement traditional health care needs.

Barb had generally pooh-poohed alternative medicine. She was straight conventional medicine all the way. Mayo Clinic, surgery, chemotherapy. I had used oils some, but all I knew about frankincense was that it had been a gift to the Baby Jesus.

Before I go further, let me say I don't intend this column as a wholesale endorsement of essential oils because I don't know if the oil deserves credit for Barb's turn-around. The experience of one person hardly constitutes a scientific study.

As I looked online (I know, I know), I discovered a few sites connecting frankincense oil with positive outcomes in ovarian cancer. One was a study at the University of Leicester in England, where a doctoral candidate named Kamla Al-Salmani reported in 2017 that frankincense oil appeared to defeat ovarian cancer cells.

I don't know what happened to that study. I've emailed the University of Leicester but have not heard back. It does appear that the researcher is now working in Oman's Ministry of Health.

Hospitals use essential oils in some cases, such as for aromatherapy. But experts do warn that in some cases oils can cause harm, also. After boys who used lavender and tea tree oils developed breasts, researchers suspect they may be endocrine disruptors, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Barb dabbed undiluted frankincense oil on her wrists. She began developing burn-like marks and stopped using it for a week or so. During that time, she told me she felt her health failing. Once she switched to rubbing it on the soles of her feet, she reported feeling stronger again.

In our country, there is so much interest in the medical uses of essential oils that it would be nice if someone funded a clinical study into whether they provide any benefit, particularly to those suffering from the deadliest conditions, of which ovarian cancer is one. Would frankincense oil have extended Barb's remission periods? Unfortunately, we don't know.

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"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.