Benefits of Yoga for Cancer Patients

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Yoga is a 5,000-year-old practice based on Indian philosophy that has gained popularity in the United States in recent decades. Yoga for cancer patients is now available at many cancer centers as well as community organizations, and it offers many benefits for people living with cancer.

This article offers basic information about yoga and its benefits during cancer care. It also offers some tips on how to get started, and any precautions you should know about before you do.

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What Yoga Is

Yoga combines intentional positions and stretches, rhythmic breathing, and meditation. The name comes from the Sanskrit word "Yuj." The word mean to join or unite, and yoga seeks to align the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is not considered a religious practice. It is a philosophy of creating wholeness within oneself to promote health and vitality.

There are many types of yoga, but hatha yoga is the form of yoga most people mean when they use the word. The practice of yoga, with its slow and gentle motions, is still possible for many people with cancer who are otherwise limited. It also may help with their fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms.

Yoga for Cancer Survivors

Yoga can help you center your thoughts and maintain flexibility but also has benefits specifically for people living with cancer. Symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, and pain can all lower your quality of life with cancer. A number of studies in recent years have looked at how yoga may work in cancer patients. These studies find both physical and mental health benefits for people with cancer.

Physical Benefits

Yoga can help improve flexibility, strength, muscle tone, and balance. These all may be compromised when you undergo surgery or prolonged bed rest due to cancer treatments. Activity levels in general can be changed by a host of cancer symptoms. Some are listed here.

Loss of Appetite: In some cases, yoga may help with the loss of appetite that often comes with a cancer diagnosis.

Pain: Yoga may decrease cancer-related pain when used as a complementary treatment. That means yoga is used along with pain medication and other tools of traditional medicine.

Sleep and Insomnia: Yoga may help people with cancer who have a hard time falling or staying asleep. This is more important than it may sound, because insomnia in cancer patients can increase fatigue, lower the quality of life, and may even play a role in survival.

Fatigue: In a few studies, yoga was linked to a notable decrease in cancer-related fatigue. This is also key, because most people with cancer report fatigue from cancer and its treatments.

Symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, and pain can all lower your quality of life with cancer. Yoga may offer a way to deal with these physical symptoms while boosting your emotional well-being.

Emotional Benefits

Anxiety: Through its centering activities and breathing practices, yoga may reduce the anxiety associated with cancer.

Stress: Yoga seems to play a role in lowering the stress for people living with cancer. Studies have shown that's true based on how people say they feel, as well as the levels of stress-related markers measured in the body.

Emotional Distress: People living with cancer report less emotional distress related to their disease when they do yoga as part of their weekly routine.

Possible Survival Benefit

There is a possible survival benefit, at least for some people, that's linked to yoga. At least one study of women with metastatic breast cancer looked at their cortisol levels because cortisol is a part of stress response. The group who practiced yoga three times a week for 60 minutes, whether alone or in a group, had a steeper drop in cortisol levels throughout the day than a control group that did not do yoga. This could suggest an improved survival rate in breast cancer.

Recap

Many people living with cancer discover wellness benefits when practicing yoga during or after their treatments. It can help people deal with physical symptoms, like fatigue or weight loss. It also may help with anxiety and other emotional challenges.

Cautions

It is important to note that yoga may relieve some symptoms of cancer but it is not a treatment for cancer. Yoga is usually used in an “integrative” fashion. This means it is another pathway for individuals to cope with cancer symptoms, while still using surgery and chemotherapy to treat the cancer itself.

As with any activity, it is important to talk with your doctor before starting yoga. Some yoga positions may cause strain on joints and muscles that could harm some people living with cancer. 

Getting Started

Your doctor may be able to recommend yoga classes at your cancer care center, or give you ideas and resources for finding yoga sessions in your community. Some health plans cover the cost, or offer lower rates for these classes.

In addition to yoga, try to learn about other integrative treatments for cancer. They include acupuncture, massage, and qigong.

Summary

Yoga is an ancient practice with modern benefits. Many people with cancer find it boosts their energy levels and their outlook. At the same time, it offers physical exercise without being too strenuous or causing pain.

Some research studies have supported the use of yoga, and it's an option that's accessible for most cancer patients. Be sure to ask your doctor about the benefits of yoga.

A Word From Verywell

Few things in life are as upsetting as a cancer diagnosis, and with it come the uncertainty and stress that many people experience. Yoga offers a way to deal with that stress. It also may help to protect flexibility, balance, and muscle tone to help people feel their best in difficult times.

If you think you'd like to try it but you still feel uncertain, consider asking a friend or family member to join you at your yoga sessions. It's something you can do to build up not just yourself but those in your support system too. It's one way to extend yoga's benefits while making it even more fun.

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