By Michelle Whitmer, Medical Writer & Editor For The Mesothelioma Center
To anyone coping with breast cancer, the promise of better health, a quieter mind and finding greater meaning in the cancer experience could sound like a miracle. And it certainly felt like a miracle to the women who reported such benefits after participating in scientific studies that tracked the effects of yoga on breast cancer patients.
Though the benefits of yoga are widely reported by its practitioners, scientific studies on the ancient system are infrequently funded. Because doctors seldom hear about the clinical benefits of yoga for cancer patients, some are reluctant to recommend yoga as a complementary therapy.
Though few scientific studies were conducted on yoga in the past, they are starting to receive more funding and are becoming more common. Several studies have examined the effects of yoga on breast cancer patients, and more are in the pipeline. Progress in clinical research may be slow, but the results confirm what practitioners have touted for ages: Yoga improves mental, emotional and physical health.
Yoga Calms the Mind and Eases Symptoms
A yoga study conducted at the Integrative Medicine Center at MD Anderson’s Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, included 59 women with stage I through III breast cancer who underwent treatment less than a year prior to enrollment.
The yoga program the women participated in consisted of four components: breathing exercises, meditation, sitting yogic postures, and movement-oriented yogic postures. All techniques were learned either sitting in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. The women attended an hour-long class once a week for seven weeks, and were given printed material and audiotapes to take home that reviewed what they learned during class. They were encouraged to practice daily at home and to continue practicing after the seven-week course finished.
The women completed questionnaires one week after the last class, and at one and three months, to evaluate and score physical and psychological effects. Results showed a decrease in cancer-related symptoms and cancer-related intrusive thoughts; which means that the yoga program not only eased the symptoms, it also improved their peace of mind.
Yoga Improves Physical Functioning & Overall Health Perception
Another yoga study at the same center included 61 women with breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy. The yoga course greatly resembled the program of the former study, but the women attended hour-long classes twice a week for the duration of their radiation therapy. Participants were also given materials that reviewed the techniques to enhance their home practice.
The women filled out questionnaires before the program began, one week after their last radiation therapy session, and at one and three months. One week after radiation therapy, women reported an improved overall perception of health and better physical functioning scores.
An interesting positive correlation appeared at one- and three-month markers that piqued the interest of the researchers. One month after radiation therapy was completed, women reported greater amounts of cancer-related intrusive thoughts. Three months after therapy, the same women reported greater “finding meaning” scores, which refer to the ability to discover meaning in their cancer experience.
The correlation suggested to researchers that women who observed more intrusive thoughts also found more meaning in the experience. In a sense, the yoga practice may have helped the thoughts rise to the surface of the participants’ consciousness, allowing the women to acknowledge the obtrusive thoughts, and may have helped them process the thoughts into a greater meaning.
The same researchers received a $2.4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute in 2009 to study the effects of yoga on breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. The study is currently underway at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and is actively recruiting women. Researchers plan to complete the study in April 2014, and hopefully the participants will have more little miracles to report.
Author bio: Michelle Whitmer has been a medical writer and editor for The Mesothelioma Center since 2008. Focused on the benefits of natural and holistic medicine for cancer patients, Michelle is a certified yoga instructor and earned her B.A. in Environmental Studies from Rollins College in Florida.