Yoga and Breast Cancer: Good for Every Step of the Journey

Cancer Support

1 in 8 British women will develop breast cancer at some time in their life and is the most common cancer in the UK.

We Will Survive

The good news is that 78% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive, and the sooner the treatment starts the better the chances of survival are. However, the treatments themselves are not exactly a walk in the park.

Most women will undergo some form of surgery to remove diseased breast tissue and this can bring secondary problems:

  • Removal of diseased breast tissue and/or reconstructive surgery can leave extensive scars that are at risk from contracture. Contracted scars can be painful and limit range of movement in the torso and upper limb.
  •  There is a possibility of swelling (called lymphedema) that can build up if lymph nodes in the armpit have to be removed during surgery.

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy are usually part of the treatment package too and also come with nasty side effects, some of these side effects (like fatigue) persist well after treatment has been completed. As if all this wasn’t enough, cancer survivors unsurprisingly report anxiety, depression, insomnia and reduced quality of life.

But enough of the bad news — since November is Cancer Awareness Month I’ve been reading more and more about how yoga can help to manage these problems that come with successful breast cancer treatment.

Safety First

One American study that really caught my eye looked at 11 research papers exploring yoga and sleep. It came up with some interesting recommendations.

  1. Cancer patients can safely participate in yoga during and after cancer treatments.
  2. Yoga interventions are feasable.
  3. Cancer patients participating in yoga interventions enjoy them and find them beneficial.
  4. Low to moderate intensity yoga in classes or bespoke sessions may lead to improvements in insomnia and sleep quality.

This really reassures me that, as a yoga teacher, it is safe for cancer survivors to practice yoga at any time after their diagnosis.

What the Doctor Ordered

Another study went as far as introduce yoga into the immediate post-operative phase to regain full range of movement of the shoulder and prevent those painful scar contractures. This was in the form of a DVD and over 70% of the women who participated would recommend yoga as soon as this after surgery. So, yoga is safe and enjoyable even when started straight after surgery.

Prānāyāma (breathing exercises) and relaxation have also been shown to reduce post-operative distress (anxiety, depression, symptom expression, quality of life and stress) but fascinatingly also showed that it prevented immune system suppression.

This means that cancer sufferers practicing yoga are better able to fight off infections and will stay in better general health as well as feel better in themselves.

Leaky Lymph

As mentioned above, lymphoedema can be a real problem with up to 60% of breast cancer survivors experiencing swelling in the arms. This is painful, unpleasant and can really interfere with function. Lymphoedema is usually managed with gentle exercises, particularly with the arm above the head to aid lymph drainage, and compression sleeves (pretty much a support stocking for the arm).

Vigorous exercise can make the problem worse so I was delighted to find a Taiwanese study showing that 60-minute yoga sessions 3 times per week for 12 weeks did not cause more swelling. The authors also considered that yoga may be used instead of compression garments in the management of lymphedema. I know I would rather do yoga that wear an elastic sleeve on my arm every day for the rest of my life.

…and More Benefits

Persistent tiredness can be a problem for cancer sufferers for years after their cancer is clear and yoga has been shown to reduce fatigue and increase vitality as well as reduce the chemical indicators of chronic inflammation in breast cancer survivors.

Another study looked at the effects of yoga on breast cancer survivors’ cognitive function (things like problem solving, memory, reasoning and attention) and found that yoga sessions twice a week reduced cognitive problems.

And then there all the studies that we know of that demonstrated how yoga benefits our psychological health which are being replicated in the cancer survivor population.

In Summary

The evidence is compelling isn’t it? Not only is yoga safe for breast cancer sufferers and survivors but regular practice will reap rewards of…

  • less fatigue
  • improved psychological health
  • reduced chronic inflammation
  • stronger immune system
  • better cognitive functioning  
  • reduced lymphedema

The studies that showed most benefit used 60-90 minute sessions 2-3 times per week and incorporated elements of āsana, prānāyāma, meditation or relaxation.

Having cancer must be up there as one of the worst life experiences a person can ever go through and breast cancer, in particular, brings added horrors as it is such a visible insult to a woman’s femininity and identity. There is comfort to know that there is so much that yoga can offer women who are going through treatment and beyond, and I personally look forward to using that knowledge with my patients and students.

I’d also love to know if there has been any particular yoga practices that have helped you in your life experience with breast cancer — what has helped you could be a lifeline for other women walking that same path.

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