Benefits of Yoga for Cancer Patients

man and women doing yoga
Can yoga help people with cancer?. istockphoto.com

Yoga for cancer patients is now offered at many cancer centers as well as community organizations. What are the benefits of yoga for cancer, are there any precautions you should take, and how can you get started?

What Is Yoga?

A 5,000-year-old practice based on Indian philosophy, yoga has gained popularity in the United States in recent years. Yoga uses a combination of postures, rhythmic breathing, and meditation, and is said to contribute to our physical and mental well-being. Derived from the Sanskrit word "Yuj," yoga stands for the union or joining together of body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is not considered a religious practice, but rather a philosophy of creating an internal environment that promotes health and vitality.

There are many types of yoga, but hatha yoga is the form of yoga most often referred to when people use the word yoga. With its slow, gentle movements, the practice of yoga may be possible for people who are otherwise limited in their activities due to fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment.

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. In recent years the use of yoga has been evaluated in many studies looking at cancer symptoms. Some of the benefits that have been supported by at least a study or two includes:

  • Sleep and Insomnia: Yoga may help people with cancer who have difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep.  This is more important than it may sound, as we've learned that insomnia in cancer patients can be dangerous — not only by increasing fatigue and lessening the quality of life, but may even play a role in survival.
  • Fatigue: In a few studies, yoga was associated with a significant decrease in the fatigue related to cancer and cancer treatments.  This is also incredibly important, as the majority of people with cancer suffer from cancer-related fatigue.
  • Anxiety: Through its centering activities and breathing practices, yoga may reduce the anxiety associated with cancer.
  • Loss of Appetite: In some cases, yoga may result in an improvement when loss of appetite accompanies a cancer diagnosis.
  • Pain: As a complementary treatment — that is, a treatment that is used along with conventional treatments such as pain medications — yoga may decrease pain associated with cancer.
  • Stress: Yoga appears to have a role in stress reduction for people living with cancer, both clinically — meaning that people have said they feel less stressed — and as seen in markers of stress in the body. In a few small studies, yoga lowered blood cortisol levels in patients with breast cancer. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted during stress and may play a role in the progression of cancer.
  • Emotional Distress: Individuals living with cancer reported significantly less emotional distress related to their disease when they incorporated yoga into their weekly routine.
  • Physical Benefits: Yoga can help improve flexibility, strength, muscle tone, and balance; all of which may be compromised when you undergo surgery or prolonged bed rest due to cancer treatments.
  • Possible Survival Benefit: An association based on a few studies suggests a possible survival benefit, at least for some people, associated with yoga.  An older study found that women with metastatic breast cancer who had a flattened cortisol curve (cortisol is a "stress hormone") had lower survival rates.  In most people, cortisol levels are highest in the morning, with levels decreasing through the day.  A randomized controlled study was done looking at women with stage 0 to stage 3 levels measuring cortisol levels.  The group who practiced yoga 3 times a week for 60 minutes (either in a group or one-on-one with an instructor) had a steeper decline in cortisol levels through the day than the control group who did not have yoga instruction.  Since a steeper decline (less flattening) of the cortisol curve was noted in women participating in yoga, it could be that yoga is associated with improved survival with breast cancer.

    It is important to note that these benefits of yoga relate to improvement in the symptoms of cancer and are not considered a “treatment” for cancer. In this context, yoga is usually used in an “integrative” fashion, meaning that alternative methods such as yoga are offered to help an individual cope with symptoms, while traditional medical practices such as surgery and chemotherapy are used to treat cancer itself.

    Cautions

    As with any activity, it is important to talk with your oncologist before beginning yoga. Some yoga positions may cause strain on ligaments and joints that could be detrimental to some people living with cancer. 

    Getting Started

    Your oncologist may be able to recommend yoga classes available at your cancer or give you guidelines for practicing yoga in your community. Does your cancer center offer yoga? Some health plans cover or offer discounted rates for yoga.

    In addition to yoga, take some time learning about other integrative treatments for cancer (sometimes called alternative treatments) such as acupuncture, massage, and qigong.

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