Some of the major cancer centers across the country, including MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, now offer their patients yoga as a complementary therapy in an effort to provide a more integrative approach to care. In addition, some physician-directed programs, such as Dr. Dean Ornish’s Prostate Cancer Lifestyle Trial and the Breast Cancer Personal Support and Lifestyle Integration Program (San Francisco) educate patients in yoga techniques.
Yoga is a form of nonaerobic exercise that involves a program of precise postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. Yoga can be a useful method to help relieve some symptoms of chronic diseases such as cancer and can lead to increased relaxation and physical fitness.
Recent scientific studies do not support yoga as an effective stand-alone treatment for cancer or any other disease; however, it may enhance quality of life by relieving the stress and anxiety associated with disease progression or treatment. Alyson Moadel of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine studied the effects of yoga in breast cancer patients and published her findings in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. She found that patients who did yoga saw improvements in social and emotional well-being compared with those who didn’t.
Most studies on yoga and cancer have focused on breast cancer patients, but recently studies have begun to incorporate other cancer patients, including those with lung cancer and colorectal cancer.
Results from recent studies on yoga and cancer show that the complementary therapy can have many benefits for patients, both mentally and physically. Some of the benefits include:
Combating the Side Effects of Treatment
Researchers from the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas found that breast cancer patients undergoing radiation treatments were better able to combat feelings of fatigue during a six-week trial of twice-weekly yoga classes in addition to their medical care. The women also had fewer problems with daytime sleepiness.
In the April 2009 journal Psycho-oncology, researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that restorative, gentle yoga improved fatigue symptoms in women undergoing breast cancer treatment.
When cancer is diagnosed, the news itself can raise anxiety levels tremendously. A small study of cancer patients in Japan published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine found yoga may be effective against anxiety. “Many disorders have a strong stress component, and yoga acts on that," state the study authors. It also "increases resilience and stress-coping capabilities" if practiced long enough.
One of the most important dimensions of yoga practice for cancer patients is breathing, or pranayama. In Sanskrit, prana means breath and yama means extension or control. Many people going through the stress of an illness do not breathe efficiently. Fear can cause the holding of the breath or shallow breathing. Slow, deep breathing can bring oxygen into the body and reduce anxiety.
Reduction of Stress and Cortisol Levels
Chronic stress, such as the daily worry and pressure that a cancer patient typically experiences, can raise stress levels and biochemical markers such as cortisol and cytokine production. Stress reduction exercises, like yoga, can reduce stress and therefore reduce cortisol. Stress has also been shown to exacerbate the growth of tumors and other cancer indicators.
Indian researchers found that yoga decreased salivary cortisol levels in patients with stage 2 and 3 breast cancer. Their research was published in the March 2009 journal Integrative Cancer Therapies.
Immune System Response
The American Cancer Society notes that experimental studies have shown evidence of yoga’s beneficial effects on the immune system. The studies have demonstrated that stress contributes to the development and progress of immune-based diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Even as early as 1962, an article in the journal Cancer Research reported the beneficial effects of stress reduction on laboratory animals injected with cancer.
Improves Coping Mechanism
Some physicians see the benefit of yoga as a key to coping with cancer illness. Sarita Dubey, MD, an oncologist at the University of California San Francisco and American Society of Clinical Oncology official, said she believes yoga "does support patients mentally and physically while they endure the challenges from their cancer and cancer treatments."
Cancer patients often find themselves in a distracted state of mind as they are bombarded by frightening information. When the mind is disturbed, it may be unable to make crucial decisions. The 2009 Breast Journal found that incorporating a coping strategy into the treatment regimen of patients with breast cancer, which could include yoga, is an important component in palliative care.
A small clinical trial published in the journal Cancer found that people with lymphoma reported fewer sleep disturbances, fell asleep more quickly, and slept longer after a seven-week yoga program, compared to patients who did not participate in yoga.
Improves Depression Symptoms
Many cancer patients experience depression either as a result of their condition, prognosis, or treatment difficulties. Yoga creates an awareness of the emotional state and acts similar to cognitive behavioral therapy to assist cancer patients with becoming aware of negative thoughts and replacing them with more neutral, rational thoughts.
In a small Japanese study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in August 2009, mindfulness and meditation techniques helped 28 patients undergoing cancer treatment to cope more effectively with depression symptoms. The therapy included yoga, breathing, and meditation.
Relief of Chronic Pain
The Society for Integrative Oncology encourages the use of yoga for cancer patients because a pilot study of women with metastatic breast cancer found that on the day after which women practiced yoga, they experienced significantly lower levels of pain and fatigue. The study was published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management in March 2007.
Providing Gentle Exercise
Some researchers believe yoga's benefits come from the fact that it is also exercise, something that is clearly beneficial in most diseases, particularly cancer. Range of motion, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and a sense of bodily well-being are enhanced by practicing the postures.
A 2008 study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention found that women who exercised after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis had both reduced overall mortality and mortality from breast cancer, compared with those who didn't exercise. Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that exercise reduced the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality among survivors of late-stage colon cancer.
Dr. Moadel says that she does not see much support for yoga overall in the general medical community just yet. "I think there's a lack of understanding about it," she said. "They may worry that patients think it's an alternative medicine versus a complimentary modality." As research continues to show benefits without harmful side effects, more physicians may begin to prescribe more complementary therapies for cancer treatment.
People with cancer and chronic conditions such as arthritis and heart disease should talk to their doctor before starting any type of therapy that involves movement of joints and muscles. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
Sources Included: The American Cancer Society, the Society for Integrative Oncology, Yoga Journal, and the National Library of Medicine.