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How yoga can help breast cancer patients

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Yoga can help combat fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation.

A new study has found that yoga can combat the fatigue suffered by breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy to improve their overall quality of life – both during and after treatment.

Fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy, which is one of the main treatments for cancer, but yoga appears to combat the fatigue by regulating stress hormones, according to the study’s findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Yoga is a centuries old discipline that is widely practiced for health and relaxation, as it involves a combination of exercises that include breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures.

For the study, researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center analyzed 191 women with various stages of breast cancer, ranging from 0 to 3. All the breast cancer participants were randomized into one of three different groups where they were instructed in either: 1) yoga; 2) simple stretching; or 3) no instruction in yoga or stretching.

The breast cancer patients in the yoga or simple stretching groups had to attend hour-long sessions, three days per week, during their six-week radiation treatment. All hour-long classes were specifically created for patients with breast cancer.

During the classes, the women also answered questions about their quality of life, including how much fatigue or depression they experienced, and how well they slept and functioned on a daily basis.

At the beginning of the study and again one, three and six months after treatment, the women were given electrocardiogram (ECG) tests and had saliva samples taken by the researchers in order to measure their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

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As a result, the study found that the women who participated in the yoga classes had a significant reduction in cortisol levels compared with the other groups, revealing that yoga could possibly regulate the stress hormone.

The women in the yoga sessions also reported a noticeable decrease in fatigue, as well as better health in general and an ability to find meaning from their experience with breast cancer, whereas the women in the other two groups that received no instruction, or only instruction in simple stretching, did not.

The importance of this finding cannot be overstated, as the researchers pointed out that higher cortisol levels during the day, also referred to as blunted circadian cortisol rhythm, have been linked with poor breast cancer outcomes.

Study leader, Prof. Lorenzo Cohen, said that yoga obviously has “tremendous potential” that can help cancer patients better manage the physical, psychological and social challenges that cancer treatment can bring – and that yoga can do so “beyond the benefits of simple stretching.”

He also added that practicing yoga after cancer treatment also benefits patients by helping them cope with the “transition from active therapy back to everyday life,” which he explains can be a highly stressful experience because the breast cancer patient is no longer receiving “the same level of medical care and attention."

In this regard, Prof. Cohen says that yoga can make the transition easier by teaching patients a "mind-body technique" that can help them relax and better cope with stress.

In another recent study, researchers with The Ohio State University have found that even a short term of practicing yoga may help reduce fatigue and lower chronic inflammation that can lead to other illnesses.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Oncology, Controlled Trial of Yoga in Women With Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy, Lorenzo Cohen et al., published March 3, 201 (doi: 10.1200/JCO.2012.48.2752).