Yoga boost for cancer patients

It relieves fatigue and gives emotional benefits to women undergoing treatment
Yoga boost for cancer patients

IT IS standard practice in most Indian hospitals to recommend a physical regime consisting of yoga and gentle exercises to patients undergoing cancer treatment. There has been an understanding that yoga improves physical function and emotional wellbeing as chemotherapy—the commonly used treatment for cancer—causes fatigue and weakens the immune system. But it is only in the last few years that empirical evidence in favour of yoga’s relaxation impact has been mounting.

Adding to such evidence, a new study—the largest of its kind—has found that yoga not only provides relief from fatigue but also gives emotional benefits to women undergoing radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. The study was conducted by MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas, in collaboration with India’s largest yoga institution, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana Bengaluru. The findings were presented at the 47th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in June.

Led by Lorenzo Cohen, the team analysed 163 volunteers suffering from breast cancer. They were all undergoing radiation treatment. The participants were divided into three groups: one group was put through a stretching programme, another was made to follow a yoga regimen, and the last group had to do neither yoga nor stretching.

They found that women in the stretching group reported reduction in fatigue after the completion of radiation treatment, women in the yoga group had additional benefits like improved emotional wellbeing and general health. The women who did yoga also recorded the highest decline in the level of stress hormone, cortisol. “I believe yoga is effective because it incorporates gentle movements, relaxing poses, meditation and controlled breathing,” says Cohen. It also helps reduce sympathetic nervous system arousal and thus regulates stress hormones, he adds.

Proofs from the past

Cohen had conducted a study in 2006 on 61 women to analyse how mind-body intervention helps women undergoing cancer treatment. He found that the women had improved social function, better sleep and less fatigue just a week after the intervention.

A pilot study by Wake Forest University School of Medicine in the US in 2009 had showed similar results. Forty-four women underwent a 10-week programme of a gentle form of yoga called Restorative yoga. The study, published in Psycho-Oncology, found that women had a 50 per cent reduction in depression and a 12 per cent increase in emotional wellbeing.

A study, conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US and published in Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2007, showed promising results with hispanic and African-American women suffering from early-stage breast cancer. Another study published in the same issue outlined the positive impact of exercising on the emotional condition of women with breast cancer. The study interestingly found that chemotherapy completion rates were higher in women who underwent yoga. In 2010, Amy Speed-Andrews, then fellow at University of Alberta tested Iyengar yoga (it uses props like belts, blocks, and blankets to minimise injury risk from yoga asanas) with women who were either undergoing treatment or had completed treatment. The results were once again affirmative.

Beneficial in other cancers

Not only has yoga proved helpful for breast cancer patients, it has also shown promise with other cancer treatments. In a 2004 study, Cohen used Tibetan yoga—healing system that incorporates gentle exercises, breathing techniques, and massage for reducing stress and balancing emotions—as the intervention method with women suffering from cancer of the lymphatic system.

After seven weeks the women reported considerable improvement in their sleep pattern. In a study at the University of California, US, in 2005 a lifestyle programme which combined a vegan diet, moderate exercise, yoga and other relaxation techniques was found to inhibit growth of prostate cancer in 93 men. Researchers are also studying the impact of yoga on brain tumour patients. “I think yoga’s simplicity, accessibility, safety, low cost and, most importantly its effectiveness are propelling its use as a relaxation method for cancer patients,” says Nancy Schalk, director, therapeutic yoga programme for cancer patients at the IU Simon Cancer Center in the US.

Yoga can also strengthen the body’s immune system. A study conducted by All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi in 2005 randomised two groups of cancer patients. One did Sudarshan Kriya, a special breathing technique devised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living, and found increased levels of natural killer cells after 12 to 24 weeks of intervention. “Yoga gets in more oxygen into lungs. This helps build more lymphocytes, which are the basis of our immune system,” says Shyam Aggarwal, oncologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi.

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