Most of us are no strangers when it comes to stress and the common feelings of being tense in this non-stop, go-go-go society we live in. Furthermore, cancer treatment invokes a state of intensified stress on the human body.
Stress is a blanket term used to describe tension in different facets of life. It manifests both physically and emotionally for patients with cancer; fatigue, soreness, anxiety, and depression are just some of the major byproducts of stress induced by treatment. More often than not, cancer treatment diminishes a person’s quality of life. From testing to diagnosis to posttreatment reality, the cancer journey poses physical and emotional challenges throughout. What can a patient do to help alleviate the naturally occurring response we call stress? Yoga.
The ancient practice is nothing new. Much more than a form of physical exercise, yoga offers a plethora of benefits. Although it is not a cure for cancer, practicing yoga has the power to enhance a patient’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. According to a Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter, yoga reduces stress and anxiety which in turn reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and eases respiration.1
MENTAL HEALTH VS EMOTIONAL HEALTH
Mental health is concerned with the mind, whereas emotional health is concerned with the heart. Emotions are believed to be fleeting whereas behaviors of the mind are relatively more consistent. Emotions invoke behavioral change, and thus influence overall mental health. This exemplifies the power of the mind-body connection experienced with yoga practice. In other words, how the body affects the mind. Yoga is said to bridge the mind and the body through moving meditations. People report feelings of relaxation, calmness, and increased tolerance from a consistent yoga practice.
Mental A racing mind of endless thoughts makes people restless, especially during the night, and promotes sleep difficulties. Thought disorders have a myriad of symptoms such as brain fog and agitation and can be exacerbated by cancer treatment. How do we soothe anxiety?
A research study from the University of Rochester reported cancer survivors who attended twice-weekly yoga sessions reported improved sleep, reduced fatigue, and even better quality of life.2 The program included breathing exercises, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures, and mindfulness exercises. Yoga activates a relaxation response and can thus help relieve feelings of anxiety, and in turn, help patients achieve better sleep. The yoga practice engenders internal skills that allow patients to cope better throughout their cancer treatment.
Emotional On an emotional level, yoga helps cancer patients reconnect with their body after undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. Yoga provides a sense of improved well-being by focusing attention on moving from one pose to the next, allowing the person to connect to the present moment. The breathing and movements ease stress and allow patients to connect to their inner selves on and off the mat. This inner peace can translate to increased emotional coping skills during and after treatment.
In addition, people can experience an improvement in their own spiritual connection, ability to think outside the box, and social skills. Practicing yoga helps improve a person’s quality of life, in turn, improving the person’s relationship with the Self. The relationship with the Self is the building block for emotional stability and endurance during cancer treatment and ultimately, a person’s ability to cope.
Physical Yoga aims to bring attention to the present moment by focusing on the breath. There are many different styles of yogic breathing, but the main element is to focus on inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the nose. This type of breathing shifts the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (also known as fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation by slowing the heart rate.
Chronic stress, such as the type brought on by cancer treatment, turns on the fight-or-flight response without any rest. The breath work in conjunction with gentle yoga poses is calming and restorative. It lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs. In addition, the lymphatic system fights infection and disposes toxic waste products. A regular yoga practice increases lymph drainage. Furthermore, studies have shown that a structured yoga practice during cancer treatment can greatly improve physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue.3
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be an isolating experience. Family and friends may not know how to act or what to say. For the patient, this can lead to heightened anxiety or even depression. Yoga classes specifically created for patients with cancer allow them to connect with other patients in a different capacity than in a traditional support group. This creates a sense of belonging, reduces feelings of isolation, and improves social skills. Yoga for cancer is becoming more popular at treatment centers.
A great benefit of yoga is that it can be free and practiced anywhere, anytime. Videos are offered online, and studios are opening up everywhere. Patients should find a studio nearby and experience its positive effects!
Note This article addresses yoga as a supplemental method to help a patient cope with the symptoms of cancer treatment and posttreatment life. Yoga is not considered a treatment for cancer.
Ashley Chookazian is an oncology social worker at CancerCare.
1. Harvard Mental Health Letter. Yoga for anxiety and depression. Harvard Health Publications web site. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression. Published April 1, 2009. Accessed November 23, 2015.
2. URMC study: yoga improves sleep, quality of life for cancer survivors. University of Rochester Medical Center web site. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/2866/urmc-study-yoga-improves-sleep-quality-of-life-for-cancer-survivors.aspx. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed November 23, 2015.
3. 9 ways yoga helps cancer patients during or after treatment. Botsford Blog web site. http://www.botsford.org/blog/index.php/2011/08/23/yoga-helps-cancer-treatment/. Posted March 24, 2015. Accessed November 23, 2015.