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Study: Yoga, Fascia & Cancer - Can Stretching Exercises Reduce Tumor Growth?

Lacey Ramirez ERYT-500, M.S.
Updated: 
March 26, 2022

We all wish we had a magic wand we could wave to make life-threatening cancer growths disappear.

Yet, there are no known viable alternate treatment modalities for cancer so far.

Yet, a recent study published in Scientific Reports offers a glimmer of hope. The study offers early evidence that stretching exercises similar to yoga stretches may slow tumor growth in mice with breast cancer. 

Background for the Study - Previous Evidence on the Benefits of Yoga for Cancer

Senior woman practicing yoga, sitting in seated forward bend or yoga's Paschimottanasana Pose.Yoga has provided countless cancer patients with an outlet for gentle movement, and yet, research on yoga’s effect on cancer has been difficult to assess.  

Although research on yoga’s impact on cancer is still in its beginning phases, there is ample anecdotal evidence to support yoga’s benefit on the quality of life for cancer patients. For example, in this video interview, cancer survivor Gigi DeRosa shares how yoga has impacted her recovery.
 
“My diagnosis was that I had stage 4 lung cancer, and I was given six months to live,” DeRosa shares regarding her diagnosis in 2004. It was around that time that she began practicing yoga at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
 
Nearly two decades later, yoga continues to be an integral part of her wellbeing, and, as she explains, “I walk out of [yoga class] a little bit taller, a little bit straighter, and I feel a little bit better about myself.”
  
Testimonies from cancer survivors like DeRosa led researchers like Dr. Helene Langevin, director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to become curious about why yoga seemed to work so well for some cancer patients and whether it could help others.
 
Happy multi generational women having fun together after yoga workout outdoors.“Gentle stretching is something that many cancer patients not only can do but enjoy doing,” Dr. Langevin explains. “We wanted to develop a preclinical model that could help us study the effects of stretching on tumor growth and, if safe and effective, be translated into a regimen for humans.”

Research Shows that Stretching Exercise Slows Cancer Growth in Mice

Dr. Helene Langevin, world-renowned researcher.This motivation led Dr. Langevin and her lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to collaborate with researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to investigate whether stretching can affect tumor growth. 

To do so, Dr. Langevin and her team introduced gentle stretching to mice who were injected with breast cancer cells into their mammary tissue.  
 
The stretches were similar to yoga, Dr. Langevin explains in this video interview, “We induced the mice to stretch by holding them gently by the tail, and then they grab the edge of the table, and they stretch their whole body, a little bit doing yoga.”
 
This is a well-established technique for stretching mice, and in a short amount of time, they can hold this position comfortably for 10 minutes at a time.
 
Sixty-six mice were included in this study and were randomly assigned to either a “stretch group” or a control “no-stretch group”. After four weeks, the team measured tumor growth and changes in immunity and inflammation molecular markers.
 
The results of the study were astonishing. As Dr. Langevin explains in the video interview, “At the end of the month, the tumors were 50% smaller in the stretched mice compared with the non-stretched mice.”

Why and How Does Stretching Work?

Group of diverse people are joining a yoga class featuring healthy stretches. Why was stretching such powerful medicine for reducing tumor growth in the mice with breast cancer? This science is still emerging, but Dr. Langevin’s team believes inflammation may have something to do with it.

“Inflammation is a double-edged sword,” explains Dr. Langevin. “Although it is an essential component of all immune responses, it needs to be limited both in location and duration. Finding changes in both markers of the immune system ramping up its attack on cancer cells as well as markers of inflammation resolution suggests a potentially important link between these two areas of inquiry.”
 
Their team hypothesized that stretching may cause T-cells to mount an immune response against tumor cells. This hypothesis was supported by their measurements of significantly increased levels of molecular markers implicated in activation of immune response and resolution of immunity in the stretch group compared to the non-stretch group.
 
“We know that the body has natural immune responses that allow us to fight little tumors when they grow in the body and to help get rid of them,” Dr. Langevin explains of the elevated markers of the immune response. “We think that stretching may be a way to actually boost those responses.”
 
Asian cancer woman doing and practicing yoga at home.The research led by Dr. Langevin and colleagues presents promising preclinical evidence of how stretching may reduce tumor growth in mice. 

It also suggests that reduced inflammation and improved immune response may be the pathway through which stretching benefits the body. 

However, the authors caution that the potential benefits of yoga and stretching on cancer patients are still being researched. Yoga should not be used in place of other evidence-based cancer treatments. However, cancer patients interested in yoga should ask their doctor what role yoga may play in their cancer journey.    

 

Baxter Bell MD, IAYT, yoga teacher, YogaUOnline presenter, Yoga for Cancer

 

Lacey Gibson Ramirez, writer, yoga U contributor, yoga teacherLacey Ramirez works for YogaUOnline and is an ERYT-500 yoga teacher, global health researcher, and writer based in the California Bay Area. Through her work, she seeks to make yoga accessible, inclusive, and equitable.

Lacey discovered yoga as a tool for centering during her years as a competitive runner. Since then, yoga has served as a way to connect with her body throughout her experience of pregnancy and parenthood. She teaches because she hopes others can use this sacred practice for calming, healing, and transformation.

As a yoga teacher, Lacey specializes in teaching restorative, Yin, prenatal, and trauma-informed Vinyasa yoga. She has also completed birth doula and prenatal/postnatal barre certifications and trainings. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more and connect, visit her website laceyramirez.com 
 
References


1) Berrueta, L., Bergholz, J., Munoz, D., Muskaj, I., Badger, G. J., Shukla, A., Kim, H. J., Zhao, J. J., & Langevin, H. M. (2018). Stretching Reduces Tumor Growth in a Mouse Breast Cancer Model. Scientific reports, 8(1), 7864. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-26198-7

2) Press release: https://www.brighamandwomens.org/about-bwh/newsroom/press-releases-detail?id=3024