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.

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