Not just a feel-good practice: Benefits of yoga to people with cancer

yoga and cancerOver the past years increased attention has been given to the benefits of yoga during and after cancer treatment. Just this April, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published yet another astounding article about how yoga has not only an emotional impact on people affected by cancer but a physical one as well (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2014).

The practice of yoga during cancer treatment has been shown to assist with unwanted physical side effects, in particular fatigue and insomnia. This is of particular value since there is little medical intervention available as yet to assist with these symptoms. Although there are medicinal options for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea available, yoga has also been shown to reduce the incidence of nausea and can be used in conjunction with or in place of medications to assist in managing this side effect of cancer treatment.

But it doesn’t stop there. The most current research indicates that a regular yoga practice has an actual impact on the levels of cellular inflammation. Inflammation in cancer is linked to decline in functioning, which often leads to disability. Furthermore, chronic inflammation is linked with increased mortality.

Managing physical side effects has a positive impact on quality of life, but side effects expand far beyond the physical body to the mind and spirit. More than half of all cancer survivors report distress levels high enough to warrant professional intervention (Massie, Lloyd-Williams, Irving, & Miller, 2011). People who participate in regular yoga programming indicate a lower rate of both anxiety and depression. Studies also have shown that people undergoing treatment or recovering from cancer who participate in regular yoga classes report higher levels of well-being as it relates to social and family functioning and mental health (Oncology News International, 2009).

Even with yoga becoming mainstream, people still believe they cannot do it. “I am not flexible” or “I can’t sit still” are things we often hear when talking to people about trying yoga. The truth is there are different forms of yoga that provide various benefits – all without judgment. Yoga instructors are trained in various styles ranging from strict alignment philosophies to hot yoga and restorative practices. When affected by cancer and starting a yoga practice, a restorative class is a good place to start. It has a gentle flow with a strong relaxation component. Nonetheless, each style speaks to a different type of person and where they are both physically and emotionally. Whatever style, yoga instructors should be certified and able to suggest modifications to meet various physical limitations. Some instructors even carry an additional certification known as the YCAT (Yoga for people in cancer treatment). These instructors are trained in evidence-based practices designed specifically for people affected by cancer.

We are only now unlocking the power that yoga can hold when assisting with physical and emotional healing. Anecdotal evidence shows that people feel more in control when doing something active to help promote recovery. Although studies have been conducted with primarily women affected by breast cancer, it is believed that the findings are transferrable any person dealing with other cancer diagnoses. So, encourage the people you serve to put themselves out there and try something new or get back to their mat if they have strayed.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more about the free yoga and other healthy lifestyle classes offered by the Cancer Support Community of greater Ann Arbor.
  • Read the research papers mentioned in this article:
  • The paper by Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Bennett, J., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Shapiro, C., Malarkey, W., & Glaser, R., “Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial,” published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 32,1041-1049 can be accessed online.
  • Check with your local library to borrow the book Depression and cancer, published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2011. On page 2 it has an article by M. Massie, M. Lloyd-Williams, G. Irving and K. Miller: “The prevalence of depression in people with cancer.”
  • Visit your local hospital’s library or patient education resource center to retrieve the study by R. Moan in 2009: “Yoga fosters sense of well-being in breast cancer patients.” It was published by Oncology News International, 18(4), which requires a subscription to view.

yoga for cancerCancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor is a local non-profit affiliate of the Cancer Support Community (CSC). The Cancer Support Community is the largest and most comprehensive program in the country devoted solely to providing emotional support and education to people with cancer, their caregivers and children – all free of charge. Its mission is to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. The Cancer Support Community is a resource for education and information, and a place to gain support – all in an environment of acceptance and hope.

University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.