Turning Yoga’s Mystique Toward Breast Cancer

March 01, 2014

WRITTEN BY SANDI DRAPER

Yoga's mystiqueResearch from around the world in breast cancer patients has shown that yoga may be able to help improve physical functioning, sleep and overall quality of life while reducing fatigue, stress and inflammation. With benefits like that, it’s no wonder yoga is increasingly embraced by cancer patients.

A new weekly yoga class offered by the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center is aimed at meeting the demand for yoga among patients and acknowledges growing scientific support for its value. The hour-long classes, which began in early March, are free to breast cancer patients undergoing treatment at the center. The classes are taught by certified yoga instructor and breast cancer survivor Kamla Subramanian, who leads participants through gentle, therapeutic exercises adjusted for each person's level.

Yoga classes are just one example of how cancer treatments have evolved dramatically over the years.

“Twenty years ago, when a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer, the surgeon cut the tumor out and sent the patient off to the oncologist,” says Maureen A. Chung, MD, PhD, director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center, director of the breast oncology fellowship program and director of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Breast Cancer Research Program. “Surgeons really didn’t have a lot to offer patients. But now, cancer treatments are more complicated and individualized, and there are more choices. Today we are treating the patient’s whole sense of well-being. Yoga is part of complementary, or integrated, care.”

The program has been so successful, a second class for individuals considered at high risk of developing the disease is now offered, too. Reducing stress is part of a thorough disease-prevention strategy.

“The majority of evidence does indicate that stress – defined as a significant life event – is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence,” says Maggie DiNome, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Clinic, chief of general surgery at the Health Center and associate director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center. “There is also evidence that suggests that reducing stress improves survival.”

One study, she notes, assessed the impact of a professional psychological intervention designed to reduce stress in breast cancer patients and found a 45% reduction in breast cancer recurrence and an almost 50% drop in the risk of death. Yoga lowers levels of stress-related hormones, including cortisol, melatonin and GABA.

YogaAnother recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that practicing yoga for as little as three months can reduce fatigue and lower inflammation in breast cancer survivors. On average, fatigue was 57% lower in women who had practiced yoga compared to the non-yoga group, and their inflammation levels were reduced by up to 20%. Those who practiced yoga also experienced improved mood and sleep.

In addition, the more the study participants practiced yoga, the better their results. The women in the study, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute, had all completed their breast cancer treatments before the study began. They were all new to yoga and practiced yoga in small groups for 12 weeks.

.Still, scientific cause-and-effect evidence that yoga can improve outcomes for breast cancer patients is limited, Dr. Chung says. “But what the data demonstrate is that cancer patients who participate in yoga twice a week feel better during treatment and have a better emotional outlook.”

Yoga has many other health benefits that aren’t unique to cancer. Perhaps that’s why the practice has soared in popularity. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, yoga is the sixth most commonly used complementary health practice among adults, and more than 13 million people practice it.

“Yoga is just a fabulous form of exercise that can help improve circulation and increase blood flow,” says Dr. DiNome. “It is also an effective way to stay fit and control one’s weight.”

Another benefit to yoga is that anyone can participate. “Yoga’s not competitive,” Dr. Chung says. “You are not competing with the person beside you. We want patients to go to the class for themselves.

Classes can help with flexibility and stretching to prevent scarring. Just breathing and taking the time to think about yourself is beneficial.”

+ The Cancer Prevention Clinic receives generous support from Martha and David Ho.