How Yoga is Helping Cancer Survivors

Cancer extracts a heavy toll, even upon its survivors. Fatigue from chemotherapy sessions, soreness from shots, any number of bone density issues... there is some truth to the adage that sometimes the cure can feel worse than the disease. But recent studies have shown that yoga can help survivors sleep better, feel more energized, and even cut back on sleeping medications.

Yoga, of course, is that integration of stretching, breathing, exercise, and Hindu spirituality that originated in India sometime in the 5th or 6th century B.C. but is enjoying the apex of its popularity today. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, NY enrolled 410 early-stage cancer survivors into their study, primarily women who had breast cancer. Half of them attended a twice-a-week specialized yoga program. Participants in the yoga group reported improved sleep quality and less fatigue, and a better quality of life while reducing the use of sleeping medications following the four-week program. The control group showed increased use of the sleep medications and reported reduced sleep quality, greater fatigue and a poorer quality of life.

“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. There are few treatments for the sleep problems and fatigue survivors experience that work for very long, if at all,” said Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H., the study’s lead investigator and assistant professor of Radiation Oncology and Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center's James P. Wilmot Cancer Center.

The specialized yoga program, designed by Mustian and her colleagues, is called YOCAS® (Yoga for Cancer Survivors). It includes breathing exercises, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures and mindfulness exercises. Yoga Alliance-certified instructors who were trained to deliver the YOCAS® program at cancer centers in nine cities across the country. YOCAS® has since been vetted by the National Institutes for Health and found to “significantly [reduce] general pain, muscle aches, and physical discomfort.

Why does it work? Mustian suspects it is the breathing, postures and mindfulness components of gentle yoga, individually or in combination, that improve sleep, fatigue and quality of life. “It is also possible that the YOCAS® program works through many different biological, psychological and social pathways simultaneously,” she said, adding that stress and anxiety reduction help initiate relaxation.