Yoga for Cancer Patients and Their Families

The March/April issue of YOGA Chicago featured an article about a local yoga instructor who took the journey from Chicago to Haiti to teach yoga to cancer patients. The author wrote that some showed up to class with fungating masses on their chests (tumors that had broken through their skin and created painful, often malodorous, wounds), while others were dealing with the aftermath of chemotherapy. Yet, they breathed and moved with enthusiasm and grace.

Patients of the Partners in Health (PIH) clinic in Cange, Haiti showed up to the session seeking healing. Each one stood and shared their story of battling cancer before striking a flowing series of gentle yoga poses. There’s no doubt that these yoga sessions enhanced each patient’s mental, physical, and spiritual well being. The cancer specialists at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute agree that the benefits experienced by these patients are real.

Yoga offers a whole host of benefits for cancer patients and their families. This is why the Moffitt Cancer Center encourages patients, survivors, and their family members to attend regardless of any physical limitation. The Center claims that yoga for cancer patients can help improve the quality of patient’s relaxation and sleep, and provide relief from pain, anxiety, fatigue, and nausea. Research supports these claims. The ancient Indian practice, which dates back to around 3000 B.C., has healing power and here’s what the research says:

•Over the past 80 years, the therapeutic potential of yoga has been researched. Nine recent studies conducted with cancer patients and survivors yielded modest improvements in sleep quality, mood, stress, cancer-related distress, cancer-related symptoms, and overall quality of life. Studies conducted in other patient populations and healthy individuals have shown beneficial effects on psychological and somatic symptoms, as well as other aspects of physical function.

•According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), yoga helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure, slow breathing, alter brain waves, and assist the heart to work more efficiently. This can result in improved physical fitness, lower levels of stress, and increased feelings of well being.

•The NIH also reports that some evidence suggests that yoga may be useful as a complementary therapy to conventional medical treatment to help relieve the symptoms associated with cancer, asthma, diabetes, drug addiction, high blood pressure, heart disease, and migraine headache. Along with diet and exercise, yoga can also help lower cholesterol levels. Randomized clinical trials have shown that yoga helps relieve the pain of arthritis.

•Family members that may be taking care of a loved one with mesothelioma or other form of cancer may benefit from practicing several times a week, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and the stress of daily living. If a family member or patient is feeling depressed, practicing several times a week may improve some measures of cognitive function and decrease symptoms of depression. American Cancer Society’s Guide To Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods, Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine (also available at most public libraries)

Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most practiced in the U.S. Hatha, which means “willful” or “forceful,” is designed to align the muscles, skin, and bones and open the many channels of the body so that energy can flow freely. Like other forms of yoga, this form of yoga also teaches the art of breathing, meditation, and posture. However, at the Moffitt Cancer Center, and many other Cancer Centers around the world, chair yoga, gentle yoga, restorative yoga, deep relaxation yoga, and one-on-one individual yoga therapy are common. To get started, discuss adding yoga to your treatment plan with your doctor. Keep in mind that the risks of yoga are low and the benefits are everlasting.