Yoga: A do-it-yourself treatment program for cancer survivors


While several small studies have suggested the benefits of yoga, ASCO's annual meeting highlighted the largest and most definitive study to date on the benefits of the therapy.

Researchers randomized more than 400 cancer survivors who had significant sleep issues to either simple monitoring or 75-minute yoga sessions twice a week for one month. The results, said lead author Karen Mustian, of the University of Rochester Cancer Center in New York, were remarkable.

The benefits of the intervention were seen across the board, reducing several common side effects reported by cancer survivors. Individuals in the yoga group reported less fatigue and daytime sleepiness, decreased use of sleep medication, and increased quality of sleep and quality of life.

"If you ask a cancer patient who is suffering with sleep problems...who is trying to work, raise children, take care of elderly parents, or live their life in a healthy manner and this is interfering with the ability to live their life...I think these findings are striking," she says. "The fact that we can reduce the amount of fatigue by almost half--42 percent--is huge as well because it's probably the most prevalent and troubling side effect reported by the greatest number of cancer patients across all diagnoses."

You can read the full article on the study here.

The fact the study was so prominent at ASCO, a meeting of oncologists, highlights the possibility that this may be something survivors may be hearing from their doctor soon. "This is a readily applicable approach that improves quality of life and reduces medicine intake in cancer survivors. This is a real positive," said ASCO president, Douglas W. Blayney, MD, at a press conference in May. "This emphasizes the increasing importance of ameliorating complications of therapy in long-term cancer survivors. There are literally millions of patients to whom this might be applicable in the United States."

What's so exciting about this study is that researchers really had the real-world patient in mind. Mustian noted they chose types of yoga that would be most readily available to people in as many communities as possible in the U.S. The two types of yoga--gentle Hatha yoga and restorative yoga--are also gentle on the body and focuses on various poses, breathing exercises, and mindfulness.

"Those gentle Hatha yoga poses are almost in every type of yoga," Mustian says. "By using that, we felt people would have a good chance of finding instructors after the study was done to teach them these poses."

While restorative yoga is less widespread, it's gaining in popularity. For most of the poses, pillows, blocks, towels, and other props are used to support the body. "You're in different positions, but you're fully supported by blankets and bolsters, and your eyes can be covered with eyepads. The idea is to completely let your body be supported by something else," Mustian says. "It focuses a lot on the restoration of balance and really paying attention to your body."

She recommends finding a yoga instructor certified by the Yoga Alliance, and if they have prior experience working with cancer patients and survivors, that's an added plus. She also stressed that these outcomes may not extend to other types of yoga, such as yoga in a heated room or vigorous yoga that raises the heart rate.

You can read more about the different types of yoga at Yoga Journal.

When CURE posted the results on our Facebook page, we discovered that many patients and survivors have already tried the integrative therapy. Here's what a few of our Facebook friends had to say:

"Yoga has kept me moving during a year of surgery chemotherapy and rads. I have good mobility after a partial mastectomy. Pain persists but the gentle yoga approach has allowed me to move as I am able. I see the difference measured in months as I continue to build strength and regain flexibility. It also is very calming to an agitated mind. I suggest a well trained iyengar teacher and not just someone at a gym."--Wendy

"I practice yoga when my body allows me to. As anyone going through chemo knows ... some days it just isn't going to happen. For me, I have intense bone pain following each treatment ... as that begins to subside, I find yoga to be a wonderful retreat ... stretching my legs in various poses and my arms absolutely LOVE being in plank ... feeling strong after periods of such weakness. I find yoga also helps me settle into my body and to notice what is good in both body and mind. I can't practice the full practice that I did before chemo but I find any little bit that I CAN do is wonderful. Sometimes it's hard to be friends with a body that hurts you so much but yoga is a constant reminder that my body is indeed my friend."--Michelle

Do you use yoga either during or after cancer? Did you notice a difference in your sleep or fatigue or general quality of life?

We'd love to hear your personal story of how yoga has affected your cancer journey and what you think of the study!



The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Carle Clinic Association contacted me about participating in a study concerning breast cancer survivors and "light exercise." in 2006 (or so). I had just lost my Tai Chi teacher and signed up.

The light exercise turned out to be yoga and I have been practicing ever since. The director of my Yoga Center, the Living Yoga Center, has initiated a program for yoga and cancer patients at Carle clinic. We agreed that the time to start yoga therapy is the minute you are on the bad news side of the doctor's desk.

I would be pleased to have more contact about this topic. I am one happy yogini.

Evey woman in my class said yoga was beneficial--both as physical therapy and as mental therapy. The breathing and short meditations really helped. The increased flexibility and balance are good for everyone, but especially us.
- Posted by Mara Wade 6/29/10 1:28 PM

This is a very exciting article and study. There are so many benefits for anyone who participates in yoga and especially those with cancer or survivors.

I was diagnosed in Jan 09 with breast cancer and underwent radiation therapy. Once finished with radiation therapy, I am now taking Tamoxifen. Although Tamoxifen does not adversely affect everyone who takes it, in my experience I found that my joints are adversely affected by Tamoxifen. After many talks with my my Oncologist, I decided to being participating in yoga. He agreed this could be beneficial. The benefits of participating in yoga for me have been less pain, increased flexibility, sleeping better, overall increased energy level and better perspective on each day. These changes have taken place over six months or so, but it has been such a good thing, I wanted to share it.
- Posted by Susan Hickman 6/29/10 1:37 PM

I feel that yoga has played a significant part in my recovery. In late 2007 I had a double mastectomy followed by chemo and radiation. Then had a year of reconstructive procedures. In August of 2008 I began practicing yoga at The Virginia Piper Cancer Center in Scottsdale, AZ. I tried to go to as many classes as I could. Missing sometimes due to illness or surgery. However, the benefits to me went beyond physical. Yoga has calmed my mind and taught me to focus on now. It is a wonderful stress reliever! Several of my doctors have even commented on how well I am doing. Yoga, I believe is perfect for the cancer survivor. It teaches you to reconnect to a body that sometimes feels foreign. Yoga is not competitive so some days you move differently - getting better doesn't mean practicing harder or faster. It means letting go. I have been so grateful for a place to practice yoga, with people who understand the effects of cancer treatment.
- Posted by Stephanie 6/29/10 1:49 PM

When I was recovering after breast cancer surgery, including removal of lymph nodes, chemo and radiation therapy, I met an instructor who taught gentle yoga for cancer patients. After realizing the benefits of total relaxation and increased body and breath awareness, I moved on to Hatha yoga. That was nearly six years ago and I still attend weekly classes. It has strengthened my weak arm along with the rest of my body. I'm now kayaking on a regular basis thanks to increased upper body and core strength. I would recommend yoga to anyone who wants to be an active participant in their recovery.
- Posted by Sharyn Lowry 6/29/10 2:24 PM

Just prior to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma seven years ago I started practicing yoga. Throughout chemotherapy treatments and two remissions, I have continued the practice of yoga regularly without interruption. Currently, while receiving maintenance treatments, yoga is still a consistent practice three to four times a week. This practice has changed from Hatha in the beginning to Ashtanga presently and just keeps me feel better and more energetic all the time.

As a cancer survivor, I feel that yoga has been beneficial in both mind and body for me. The focus required for yoga brings about a relaxation that is needed to deal with day to day events.The benefit of improved physical strength and endurance has proven to be invaluable. Restful sleep is one of the greatest side effects of yoga. I strongly recommend the practice of some form of yoga to any and all cancer survivors.
- Posted by Pat 6/29/10 4:21 PM

Many women who I worked with as a certified mastectomy fitter benefitted by working with Yoga instructors.
Many integrative pallative care centers are indeed finding the mind- body- relationship beneficial in the healing process.
Clothing plays an integral part of this experience as well, be advised to not wear a tight fitting bra, or panty as this also will restrict your movements.
- Posted by Constance M. Niclas MHA CMF,CF-M 6/30/10 6:34 AM

Yes, i totally agree with everyone about the benefits of yoga. We live in a very small town, but there are quite a few yoga instructors. Yoga had been a practice for me before and during my treatments before we moved to this area. And i continued to make remarkable progress here after my mastectomy and lymph node dissection and resulting chest pain syndrome. I actually had to lift my arm with the other one for quite awhile, but now i can actually throw and have good mobility. Only thing is, i dropped out after 3 years as the classes became too demanding and expectations too great, leaving me exhausted the remainder of the day and in pain for a couple of days. There are no teachers in this area who really understand the challenges of post treatment pain and limitations. Are there good resources to guide someone like me through my own restorative practice? I really miss yoga as another healing modality in my life.
- Posted by katherine pearl-levi 6/30/10 1:49 PM

There is a fabulous yoga video for breast cancer patients and survivors, great for beginners and anyone with low energy, but also good as it offers different pose variations as you gain strength. Very calming and instructive, also has a guided meditation to help you through the day, just for cancer so it has poses that are specifically chosen to help healing and restoration., it's also available on amazon, I have really enjoyed it. Namaste!
- Posted by Yoga Lady 7/4/10 8:12 AM

I have also found yoga to be a valuable way of maintaining stability in my exercise program when Michigan weather takes a turn for the worse. My daughter recommended "Yoga for Everybody" DVD for stay at home days. It has variable levels of experience. I have lost 45 pounds since my Stage IIIC diagnosis in December of 2008. Needless to say my eating and exercise habits have changed drastically. Yoga helps with my flexibility making me more "sure-footed" and confident in tackling larger workout goals like the occasional horse back riding or kayaking or down hill skiing.
- Posted by Jeanine Hair 8/2/10 9:11 AM

After surgery and radiation for breast cancer, I enrolled in a Yoga class at my local YWCA. For a year I have a faithfully attended the 7:00 a.m. class three times each week. It's been helpful in maintaining my range of motion, but most of all, it's quiet. My first oncology clinic at the Piper Center was so noisy and chaotic, and then radiation was loud, too, that I wondered if anything could restore a sense of inner quiet. Yoga does that for me, and it's a great start to the busy day ahead. I did not see any marked improvement in my erratic sleep pattern, but maybe one day that will settle down. Hope so.
- Posted by Bridget Ryan 8/6/10 8:31 AM


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