Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors

How asanas help heal

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The benefits of yoga, in its many forms, are well-known. After 5,000 years of practice, we have good evidence of yoga’s many benefits including strength, flexibility, posture, concentration, and in some cases, positive benefits to existing medical conditions.

Though most studies regarding the benefits of yoga were conducted in India, with its rise in popularity in the west, researchers are now studying yoga’s benefits using western methods. One area researchers are focusing on is the link between yoga and diseases, such as heart disease, Parkinson’s Disease, arthritis, and cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, “Yoga can be a useful method to help relieve some symptoms of chronic diseases ... and can lead to increased relaxation and physical fitness.” Understand that, while yoga does seem to have quality of life benefits for cancer patients and survivors, it is not an effective treatment for cancer or other diseases.

How yoga can help

People going through chemotherapy or surgery, or those just out of cancer treatment, live in a constant state of stress and fear. Couple treatment stress with having to deal with insurance companies, well-meaning friends and sometimes inconsiderate medical professionals, and the stress levels continue to go up. Stress inhibits the immune system and low immunity can contribute to the spread or development of immune-based diseases like cancer. Several current studies find that yoga helps cancer patients and survivors manage that stress and fear leading to less stress, thereby leading to feelings of calmness and well-being.

Many cancer patients and survivors have problems sleeping and are often tired. Doctors prescribe sleep aids that may not work. Both the patients and the healthcare professionals working with them expect these side affects to go away when all of the chemotherapy and surgeries are done. However, many survivors report these symptoms can continue for several weeks, months or years.

A University of Rochester study released in May 2010 reports that former cancer patients who practice a gentle form of yoga said they sleep better, are not as tired and their quality of life is better. “Yoga is a safe and simple technique that can have multiple benefits for survivors who are looking for solutions,” said the study’s lead investigator and professor of Radiation Oncology, Karen Mustain, M.P.H.

Yoga enters mainstream medicine

Several major cancer centers have yoga programs as part of their treatment programs. These centers include Stanford Cancer Center, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In addition, the National Cancer Institute gave M. D. Anderson Cancer Center a $4.5 million grant in April to research adding yoga to breast cancer treatment programs. The researchers will measure and track the levels of stress hormones in participants as well and monitor their sleep.

The best types of yoga for cancer patients and survivors are those that focus on breathing and gentle postures. Mustain developed a special yoga program just for cancer patients. Called YOCAS®, (Yoga for Cancer Survivors), it is a blend of Hatha and restorative yoga postures as well as breathing exercises.

No one is exactly sure how yoga works to help patients and survivors. To date, studies only demonstrate that there are benefits, but not the hows or whys. If you are a cancer patient or survivor and you plan to start a yoga program, be sure you discuss your situation with your yoga teacher.

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