Navigating Cancer Treatment: How Yoga Can Help

By: 
Jennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT 200

While most of us have been touched by breast cancer in some way—from our own experience or that of family members and friends—we aren’t necessarily aware of strategies for early detection and for supporting ourselves and our loved ones who are dealing with breast cancer. Practicing yoga is one piece of a multi-pronged program that can help cancer survivors and their supporters through the journey. 

At first glance it seems like a typical Saturday afternoon yoga class. Women are laying out their yoga mats and greeting each other as they enter the studio. Most of the women have a few extra blankets on their mat for cushioning and one woman sets up a chair next to her mat.

As the class quiets, a woman in the front row removes her hat and runs her hands over her bald head. The Yoga for Cancer Patients class is beginning.

Yoga has long been known to decrease stress levels, lower blood pressure and boost a yoga practitioner’s mood. But recent research is also showing that yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

In cancer patients, bodily inflammation is a cause of the chronic fatigue patients feel sometimes for up to many months after treatment has ended.

“I always feel better after this class,” said Mickey McCarley, 14-year breast cancer survivor. “It’s not just the stress relief from class, but the camaraderie of being around other people that are going through what you are going through.”

An Ohio State University study published in the January 2014 Journal of Clinical Oncology, and reported by Susan Brink in National Geographic, studied 200 breast cancer survivors. The group was divided with half participating in twice-a-week yoga sessions and the other half not practicing yoga at all.

The yoga group reported less fatigue and more energy than the non-yoga group after just three months.

However, the Ohio State University researchers took the study further than just empirical evidence. The Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology, and Medical Genetics tested the study participant’s blood samples for three different cytokines, which are protein markers for inflammation.

After the three months of yoga classes, each of the yoga student’s markers for inflammation lowered by 10 to 15 percent.

The study’s lead researcher, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology, said in the National Geographic article that cancer treatments leave patients with high stress levels, fatigue and poor sleep. Fatigue is a risk factor in increasing inflammation in the body. This study shows that yoga practitioners have lower inflammatory responses to stress than non-yoga cancer patients.

Karen K. Moss, owner of Better Bodies Yoga Studio in Memphis, TN, saw firsthand the benefits of yoga as she helped her mother through cancer treatments.

“I was teaching and doing yoga with my mom all through her treatments up until the day before she passed away,” said Moss. “She always felt so much better after we finished each session both mentally and physically.”

After losing both her parents to cancer, Moss began offering a free Yoga for Cancer Patients and Support Persons class to provide a safe healing place for others struggling with cancer.

Now in its ninth year, the class is stronger than ever, both literally and figuratively. Moss says the core members of the group have bonded together and are always available to support and encourage each other. Physically, the yoga has also helped them become stronger and more empowered.

Jessica Frederick currently teaches the Yoga for Cancer Patients class at Better Bodies Yoga. She encourages the students to move through a pain-free range of motion and use as many blankets at necessary to soften the floor under sore muscles and bones.

“There is a bone pain or an ache that the Neulasta shot that is given during chemotherapy causes and much of that is alleviated with yoga,” said Jenny Merritt who recently completed her breast cancer treatments, including mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.

Using spinal twists and range-of-motion poses, Frederick reminds her class to be mindful of both their movements and their thoughts. She uses a lot of positive affirmations and intention setting in her class.

“I intentionally never use the word cancer,” she says. “They know they have it.”

Moss says a yoga class for cancer patients needs to accommodate the special needs of those going through treatment. Pain, fatigue, scar tissue restrictions, and loss of bone density and muscle mass are all issues to be considered in class.

“If they have a port in their chest, the prone position would not be optimal for them. I have used bolsters under their torsos on many occasions with students who have ports in their chest and they did fine,” says Moss. “You just don’t want them to compress the port into their chest.”

Moss says those suffering from nausea from the chemotherapy also shouldn’t be placed on their stomachs.

Students in the cancer class report feeling more optimistic, having less pain, being able to breathe better, feeling calmer during treatment and being able to rely on the support network they’ve developed in class.

Merritt says her doctors were familiar with yoga and encouraged her to stay as active as she could.

“Yoga was very beneficial during my chemotherapy because my muscles were getting weaker and it felt as though they were drawing up,” says Merritt.  “I can't imagine not being able to stretch and loosen them up daily.”

Both Frederick and Moss keep the mood upbeat and positive for each student.

“I use a lot of humor with this group,” she says. “If I didn’t they—and I—would all walk around crying all the time.”

Laughter and positivity have also been shown to lower stress levels, again leading to decreased inflammation in the body.

“It is a gift and a privilege to teach this group. Helping someone to feel just a little better or giving someone a little bit of hope during their darkest hours, have been some of the most fulfilling yoga teaching experiences I’ve had,” said Moss.

Another article from YogaUOnline and Dr. Baxter Bell - Review-Tari Prinster's Yoga for Cancer: Important New Resource for Cancer Survivors.

Study with YogaUOnline and Tari Prinster: Introduction to Yoga for Cancer - Tapping Into the Body's Inherit Healing Wisdom.
 

Jennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT 200 is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. Her first book "Creating A Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned From Yoga and My Mom" is now available on Amazon. She has had her essays featured on Yahoo! and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, YourTango and YogaUOnline. See more from Jennifer at jenniferwilliamsfields.com