Practicing yoga helped women with breast cancer overcome fatigue, achieve a better quality of life, and experience better physical functioning and general health during and after radiation treatment compared with women not engaging in this exercise.

In what the investigators call the first yoga-related study in cancer patients to include an active control group, women (mean age 52 years) with stages 0 to 3 breast cancer were randomized to a yoga group (53 women), a simple stretching group (56 women), or no instruction in yoga or stretching (54 women)—the waitlist control group. Yoga goes beyond simple stretching movements by incorporating breathing, meditation, and relaxation techniques with certain postures.

Both the yoga and the stretching participants attended 1-hour sessions, 3 days a week, specifically tailored to breast cancer patients. The women attended the sessions for 6 weeks, throughout the course of their radiotherapy.

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At the completion of radiation treatment, the yoga and stretching group members reported a reduction in fatigue; in contrast, the control group experienced an increase. One month, 3 months, and 6 months after radiotherapy, the women who practiced yoga during the treatment period reported greater benefits to physical functioning and general health. In addition, they were more likely to perceive positive life changes from their cancer experience than either of the other groups.

The yoga group also exhibited the steepest decline in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Higher levels of stress hormones have been linked to worst outcomes in breast cancer.

“While stretching improved fatigue and physical functioning, yoga buffered changes associated with [radiotherapy] in terms of fatique, [quality of life], and benefit finding,” concluded Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and coauthors in the abstract they prepared for the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, to be held June 3-7, 2011, in Chicago (