A cancer diagnosis can consume all areas of a patient’s life, especially their mental state. Implementing self-care and relaxation into their routines while maintaining a busy schedule of treatment and the requirements of their own lives is incredibly important for those living with cancer. Yoga, an ancient practice that originated in India, connects the mind and body through breath, movement, and meditation and has taken the United States and the rest of the world by storm. Patients with cancer that practice yoga regularly find their quality of life and the complications of their emotional and physical states have drastically improved. Yoga has the ability to reduce the psychological stress caused by one’s diagnosis as well as helping manage the physical symptoms and side effects of treatment.

Psychological and Emotional Impact

People often report increased anxiety and depression after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Some symptoms include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, inability to focus and increased negative thought patterns. Yoga has been proven to reduce psychological distress, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.1 It can be challenging for patients with cancer to prevent their minds from wandering, dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future. Meditation and deep breathing exercises allow them to clear their mind and focus on their breath, which grounds them and helps them to focus on the present. Yoga creates a sense of self-regulation and awareness making it easier for the patient to cope with stressful situations.2 These skills are incredibly useful when managing the many stressors that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Yoga can also facilitate a spiritual experience and inner peace, which can be lost when initially diagnosed. A CancerCare client who participated in a biweekly young adult yoga program agreed. “I enjoy coming to the mat because I am able to focus solely on myself and my body,” the client said. “I tune out work, doctor appointments, and cancer.”

If done in a studio, yoga can foster a sense of community and camaraderie, decreasing feelings of isolation that can be caused by a cancer diagnosis. Yoga and meditation are not only useful while in treatment. The mindfulness achieved while practicing yoga carries into posttreatment survivorship. It can help limit anxiety caused by longer gaps between doctor visits, the fear of recurrence, and the uncertainties of follow-up scans.

Management of Physical Side Effects

Yoga has been used to manage many of the side effects that result from cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. A variety of different stretches and movements, which should be tailored to meet the specific needs of the patient, can reduce pain and stiffness. Postures that target the abdomen can manage loss of appetite and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.1 The management of these symptoms can improve patients’ ability to sleep, therefore improving their ability to function and their quality of life. In 2006, a study on yoga was done at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center consisting of 61 women who were receiving 6 weeks of radiation treatment for breast cancer. Half of the women participated in yoga twice weekly, while the remainder of the women didn’t participate in yoga at all. The women who participated in yoga reported having more energy, less sleepiness, improved physical functioning, and improved overall quality of life.3 Yoga can help patients rebuild a positive relationship with their bodies after a time of discomfort, disconnect, and what might have felt like betrayal of systems that once seemed to function normally. 

Implementing Yoga Into Your Routine

Determining how to squeeze yoga or other methods of self-care into their routines when patients are busy with treatment and doctor visits may feel overwhelming. An essential point for doctors, nurses, social workers, and other members of the medical team to make to patients is the importance of taking care of their bodies and minds. Yoga is a great option because it is affordable, noninvasive and can be adapted based on the patient’s needs.2 Yoga can also serve as a segue to more intense workouts when first starting to exercise after treatment. As another participant of the CancerCare yoga program stated, “I wasn’t able to exercise while I was in treatment. Yoga is the perfect way for me to ease myself back into physical activity.”

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Patients should speak with their doctors to ensure that yoga is right for them prior to practicing. They need to be aware of any physical limitations they might have to know what practice suits them. If new to yoga, it is best to start with a licensed instructor to learn the proper techniques and accommodations. Once comfortable, yoga can be done in the comfort of one’s home. Breathing techniques and exercises can be done almost anywhere, which is what makes them so valuable. Ultimately, yoga can have tremendous benefits for anyone undergoing treatment for cancer, both for emotional and physical reasons, and can have ongoing benefits as patients continue their care.  


Marlee Kiel is an Oncology Social Worker at CancerCare.


References

  1. Rao RM, Amritanshu R, Vinutha HT, et al. Role of yoga in cancer patients: expectations, benefits, and risks: a review. Indian J Palliat Care. 2017;23(3);225-230.
  2. Heeter C, Lehto R. Benefits of yoga and meditation for patients with cancer. Oncol Nurs News. 2018;12(4);37.
  3. Yoga. Breastcancer.org website. https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/types/yoga. Accessed January 14, 2020.

This article originally appeared on Oncology Nurse Advisor