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Yoga for Cancer Patients

Benefits of Yoga for Cancer and How to Get Started

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Updated August 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many cancer centers, as well as community organizations, now offer yoga for cancer patients. What are the benefits of yoga for cancer, are there any precautions you should take, and how can you get started?

What is Yoga?

A 5,000-year-old practice based on Indian philosophy, yoga has gained popularity in the United States in recent years. Yoga uses a combination of postures, rhythmic breathing, and meditation, and is said to contribute to our physical and mental well-being. Derived from the Sanskrit word "Yuj," yoga stands for the union, or joining together of body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is not considered a religious practice, but rather a philosophy of creating an internal environment that promotes health and vitality.

There are many types of yoga, but hatha yoga is the form of yoga most often referred to when people use the word yoga. With its slow, gentle movements, the practice of yoga may be possible for people who are otherwise limited in their activities due to fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment.

Benefits of Yoga for Cancer Survivors

Yoga can help you center your thoughts and maintain flexibility, but also has benefits specifically for people living with cancer. Symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, and pain can all lower your quality of life with cancer. In recent years the use of yoga has been evaluated in many studies looking at cancer symptoms. Some of the benefits that have been supported in at least a study or two include:
  • Sleep and Insomnia: Yoga may help people with cancer who have difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep.

  • Fatigue: In a few studies, yoga was associated with a significant decrease in the fatigue related to cancer and cancer treatments.

  • Anxiety: Through its centering activities and breathing practices, yoga may reduce the anxiety associated with cancer.

  • Loss of Appetite: In some cases, yoga may result in an improvement when loss of appetite accompanies a cancer diagnosis.

  • Pain: As a complementary treatment –- that is, a treatment that is used along with conventional treatments such as pain medications -– yoga may decrease pain associated with cancer.

  • Stress: Yoga appears to have a role in stress reduction for people living with cancer, both clinically -- meaning that people have said they feel less stressed -- and as seen in markers of stress in the body. In a few small studies, yoga lowered blood cortisol levels in patients with breast cancer. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted during stress and may play a role in the progression of cancer.

  • Emotional Distress: Individuals living with cancer reported significantly less emotional distress related to their disease when they incorporated yoga into their weekly routine.

It is important to note that these benefits of yoga relate to improvement in the symptoms of cancer and are not considered a “treatment” for cancer. In this context, yoga is usually used in an “integrative” fashion, meaning that alternative methods such as yoga are offered to help an individual cope with symptoms, while traditional medical practices such as surgery and chemotherapy are used to treat the cancer itself.

Cautions

As with any activity, it is important to talk with your oncologist before beginning yoga. Some yoga positions may cause strain on ligaments and joints that could be detrimental for some people living with cancer.

Getting Started

When you talk to your oncologist about yoga, she may have suggestions about yoga classes she would recommend. Does your cancer center offer yoga? Some health plans cover or offer discounted rates for yoga.

If you have been given the “all clear” to begin yoga, our About.com Guide to Yoga offers great tips on how to get started, including a free e-course to keep you on track. You can also get information on how to find yoga classes if your oncologist is unaware of classes in your area.

Sources:

Banasik, J. et al. Effect of lyengar yoga practice on fatigue and diurnal salivary cortisol concentration in breast cancer survivors. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. 2011. 23(3):135-42.

Bower, J. et al. Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors. Cancer Control: Journal of the Moffitt Cancer Center. 2005. 12(3):165-171

DiStasio, S. Integrating yoga into cancer care. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2008. 12(1):125-30>

Elkins, G. et al. Mind-body therapies in integrative oncology. Current Treatment Options in Oncology. 2010. 11(3-4):128-40.

Hede, K. Supportive care: large studies ease yoga, exercise into mainstream oncology. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2011. 103(1):11-2.

Kvillemo, P. and R. Branstrom. Experiences of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction intervention among patients with cancer. Cancer Nursing. 2011. 34(1):24-31.

Smith, K. and C. Pukall. An evidence-based review of yoga as a complementary intervention for patients with cancer. Psychooncology. 2009. 18(5):465-75.

Vadiraja, S. et al. Effects of yoga on symptom management in breast cancer patients: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Yoga. 2009. 2(2):73-9

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