Yoga is a must for cancer survivors. About the same time that I was ready to choose a topic for this essay, I received a medical scare. What went through my mind at the time was what yoga practice could add to my health and recovery. Thankfully, my scare was just a false alarm, but it did cause me to want to research the relationship between yoga practice and the side effects of cancer treatments. At first I found it difficult to narrow the focus of my topic.
Medical facilities and scientists have taken this subject very seriously and much research has been done. My interest was drawn to research in the effect of yoga practice on subjects who were undergoing chemotherapy or radiation during a study and those who had completed their treatments. There is a long list of common complaints with cancer survivors. They experience fatigue, poor sleep or insomnia, anxiety, pain, stress and emotional distress. In the studies that I reviewed, changes were measured to show improvements in most of these areas.
Yoga has three branches that come together to unite mind, body and spirit. Mention yoga and most people think of the exercise (asana) branch of yoga. Several of the studies that I reviewed used gentle yoga poses with props under the supervision of skilled yoga teachers. Poses were carefully chosen with sequencing from mild to more challenging. Inversions and backbends with props were effective for the group of breast cancer survivors. There was a marked decrease in all the subjects level of fatigue and an improved perception of level of health (5 ). The participation in yoga class allowed these subjects to have some autonomy in their health. Yoga is not competitive. The participants could all be successful. The poses aid flexibility, strength and balance. Moving through the poses unlocks energy blocks and allows for healing. There is also the benefit of the socialization of participating in a class with peers. One study (5) of breast cancer survivors showed that their yoga practice improved their perception of health and over-all quality of life.
The second branch of yoga is awareness of breath. This is an essential part of asana practice, but can be a beneficial practice without going through poses. Connecting the movement of the body to the movement of the breath opens the muscles and allows for more flow. It also allows the mind to become calm and non-judgmental by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system thus leading to less anxiety. With deep, slow diaphragm inhalations, the lungs fill with nourishing oxygen. Pausing at the top of the inhale brings oxygen to those areas of the respiratory system that are normally missing out on it. Exhaling slowly gives the body time to fully release carbon dioxide and toxins from cancer treatment. A final pause at the bottom of the exhalation finishes its expulsion.
Cancer survivors find that connecting with the breath aids in asana practice to strengthen the muscles, gain flexibility and balance, but also allows them to move to more and more challenging poses. Cancer survivors who are not yet able to practice the physical portion of yoga find benefit in pranayama. It helps them to feel more energized and less fatigued. Fatigue was described by breast cancer survivors as being “debilitating”(2) Studies showed that levels of depression dropped among participants who practiced conscious breathing exercises. There is evidence to show that breathing exercises can lead to control of physical functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and relief from disease symptoms (3). Sleep disturbance and insomnia are also residual effects of cancer treatment. It has been shown that yogic breathing practice minimizes or eliminates sleep problems in lymphoma survivors (3,2).
Meditation is the third branch of yoga practice. There are several ways to participate in meditation. Focusing on the breath may be best for some people. Others may use a walking or moving meditation. There are also guided meditation and mantra meditation. With the choice of modalities, each person can find one form that will be available to him. Meditation does not require special equipment or physical prowess so it can be practiced by anyone, even the physically infirm. The benefits of meditation are many. Meditation is used for pain control. The benefit continues as the pain is reduced, stress levels decline. The circle of healing continues since decrease in stress allows for a decrease in pain. Stress also has an effect on the immune system. Pain and stress slow down the body’s immune system. Reducing these two elements encourages the immune system to be stronger. Heart rates can be reduced through meditation to further improve over-all health. Stress has been found to increase tumor growth and inhibit healing.
Some hospitals are now including yoga instructors on their staffs. Cleveland Clinic was the first to hire a full-time yoga therapist to work with both patients and employees. MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston offers 52 yoga classes each year. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC has a part time yoga therapist and offers 20 classes per month. Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver has a full-time yoga therapist and offers 40 classes for patients and 20 classes for staff each month (7).
Yoga, acupuncture, massage and Reiki used to be referred to as “alternative” medicine. It is interesting that now these modalities are being referred to as “complementary” medicine. Multiple studies with positive results have moved yoga into the mainstream of treatment. Yoga has no side effects, is cost effective and is available to everyone.
Dorothy Hudson is a certified Chair Yoga teacher. She teaches classes in Louisburg, North Carolina.
1. Boucher, Sandy. “Yoga for Cancer”. YogaJournal.com/health/126
2. Bower, Julie E. et al. “Yoga for Persistent Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors”. .
4. Cose, Andreanne, MD. “Effect of yoga on patients with cancer”. College of Family Physicians of Canada. September 2012. pp 75-79.
5. Dinardo, Kelly. “Ease your symptoms…with yoga?”. O Magazine. April 2013. p109.
6. Dhruva, A et al. “Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy-associated symptoms and Quality of life: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial”. https:// www.nchi.nlm.gov/pubmed22525009.
7. Eldridge, Lynn, MD. “Yoga for Cancer Patients”. .
8. Yoga Journal. “The Yogi is in”. March 2013. P 26.