Standard breast cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation can have severe side effects. During and after cancer treatments patients often experience persistent fatigue and sleep problems that affect quality of life. Many women may also suffer from depression, anxiety and weight loss.
There are few treatments available to truly relieve these problems. Traditional care usually includes antidepressants and sleep meds that can have adverse side effects. Studies show that supportive therapies such as stress reduction and exercise classes can benefit cancer patients.
Current research reports that yoga practice can improve quality of life in women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Yoga may also help promote sleep, boost energy and improve mental health.
Yoga Improves Sleep and Fatigue
A 2010 randomized controlled study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found yoga improved sleep problems and fatigue. About 75 percent of the patients were breast cancer survivors. All of the cancer patients suffered from sleep disruption for 2 to 24 months.
Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center administered either a yoga program (yoga group) or standard care (control group) to 410 cancer survivors for four weeks. Sleep quality, fatigue and quality of life were assessed before and after the study.
The yoga group participated in 75-minute yoga sessions two times per week. The yoga program, called YOCAS (Yoga for Cancer Survivors), included gentle hatha yoga and restorative yoga poses, breathing and meditation. Certified yoga teachers trained in the YOCAS program conducted the classes.
The researchers found that the yoga participants had significantly reduced fatigue and improved sleep quality compared to the control group. Furthermore, the yoga group used less sleep medication while the control group increased sleep meds.
"This is great news for cancer survivors who deal with persistent and debilitating side effects from their cancer and its treatments long after their primary therapy ends," said lead investigator Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor at the university of Rochester Medical Center, in a news release. "There are few treatments for the sleep problems and fatigue survivors experience that work for very long, if at all."
Yoga Benefits Quality of Life
A 2011 study presented at the 47th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology reports yoga improved quality of life and lowered stress in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment. This is the first study to compare yoga benefits to simple stretching exercises in cancer patients.
Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center administered yoga, simple stretching or no yoga or stretching instruction to 163 women with breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy. Quality of life assessments including fatigue, daily functioning, depression and spirituality were obtained from the participants. Saliva samples and electrocardiogram tests were obtained before and after treatment.
The yoga and stretching groups participated in one-hour sessions three times per week during their six-week radiation treatment. The yoga program was conducted in collaboration with the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana research institute in India. The yoga classes included yoga postures, breathing, meditation and relaxation.
The researchers found that both yoga and stretching reduced fatigue. Furthermore, the yoga group had greater benefits to quality of life and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels than either the stretching or non-exercise group.
"The combination of mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical distress associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching," says lead researcher Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson.
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Elaine Gavalas is an exercise physiologist, yoga therapist, weight management specialist, nutritionist and healthy recipe developer.