Yoga Gives Hope for Cancer Patients

Several recently published medical studies are giving hope for using yoga as a therapy for people suffering and recovering from cancer. The new studies show the effectiveness of various types of yoga in improving quality of life, emotional well-being, fatigue and stress for cancer patients and breast cancer survivors.

The first publication is a a meta-analysis (a review of all randomized controlled trials) exploring the effects of yoga on health among cancer patients; researchers found improvements in anxiety, depression, distress, and stress.  The authors cite difficulty in reaching conclusions in this analysis, due to the varied measures employed across studies and the variability of “yoga” between trials (3 used a combination of asanas, pranayama, meditation, and yogic relaxation with guided imagery, while the other 7 incorporated restorative yoga, Tibetan style yoga, and yoga otherwise unspecified).  Still, the results are promising!

Aside from these benefits for cancer patients, new research also shows promise for yoga’s alleviation of symptoms in breast cancer survivors.

Two randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were recently published exploring the impact of viniyoga and Iyengar yoga on symptoms of physical and emotional health in breast cancer survivors.

The viniyoga study was conducted with overweight and obese breast cancer survivors.  Participants were randomized to 6 months of yoga practice, with an overall practice goal of 5 yoga sessions per week (including yoga homework and instructor-led classes) or a wait-list control group.  Non-statistically significant findings indicated a trend toward improved quality of life (QOL) and fatigue, and decreased waist circumference for women in the yoga compared to control groups.

The Iyengar study investigated self-perceived psychosocial function and salivary cortisol secretion (a measure of stress) among breast cancer survivors. Women were randomly assigned to twice-weekly, 90-minute yoga classes for 8 weeks or a wait list control group.  Results indicated lower AM/PM salivary cortisol and improved emotional well-being and fatigue scores among participants in the yoga group.

Finally, a small pilot study assessing the impact of Iyengar yoga on fatigue in breast cancer survivors showed improved fatigue, physical functioning, depressed mood, and QOL. Because this study was not an RCT, however, we cannot establish that the yoga promoted these positive changes.

Research currently underway may tell us more about yoga’s beneficial effects on breast cancer patients during treatment. Lorenzo Cohen, a researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, received more than $4.5 million last year from the National Cancer Institute to conduct a large, highly rigorous, multi-year RCT investigating the effects of yoga on physical function and QOL during and after radiation treatment in breast cancer patients.

Given the results of a growing body of research and the therapeutic promise yoga has shown in many other domains of health, there is reason to believe yoga may be highly beneficial for these health concerns.

Have you or someone you know found yoga to be helpful for fatigue, mood, or quality of life during or after a cancer diagnosis?

Comments 4

  1. I started doing yoga when I was seeking alternative therapies for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of lymph cancer. I could tell it helped after one class. Not only could I feel my chi and vital fluids circulating better, I was mentally calm and peaceful for the first time in a while.

    It wasn’t until participating in a research study (as a patient/subject) for post transplant (stem-cell or bone marrow) cancer patients that it really clicked that I needed to integrate yoga more deeply into my life. This was also the first time I realized I could possibly help other people if I was a yoga teacher.

    For the scientists, the study results were disappointing and inconclusive. Yet, being part of it really did change my life. So I say bring on the research! There is no telling how significant it can be for those who are the lucky subjects. Even if they can never prove ‘statistical’ significance.

  2. Hi Amber~Thanks for sharing your story! As an aspiring scientist studying the effects of yoga, I strongly believe scientific validation of yoga’s benefits is necessary and can benefit not only the ‘lucky subjects’ :) but society as a whole. Your wonderful story reminded me of how important this work is! (and is encouraging for those moments when we don’t exactly reach p>.05 :)

  3. Hi Tosca! I also believe that scientific validation is needed, and is really the only way to keep yoga moving deeper into the Western medical paradigm as a true therapeutic option. It is very important work!
    I’m glad it was encouraging, that is why I wanted to share! I know statistically significant results are often what ensures continued funding, but even without them, these studies are significant!

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