Yoga helps cancer patients find relief
August 5, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith
Lilly*, who had terminal brain cancer, practiced yoga with a sweet smile on her face, performing poses with the sense of calm relief that comes with gentle movement and deep breathing. “She was more accepting of life as it was,” said Lisa Mueller, M.D., a yoga instructor at City of Hope. “She used her practice and her breath to find solace and be grateful.”
Yoga is an ancient practice – combining breath with movement – that can be a potent stress-reducer, mood enhancer and blood pressure-reducer. And it is being studied as a potentially powerful complement to cancer treatment that may improve symptoms, outlook and overall quality of life.
‘It’s a no-brainer, it helps’
The few studies about cancer patients who practice yoga (most of whom are women with breast cancer) suggest it reduces stress and fatigue — and improves sleep and pain. But Mueller, who is also an oncologist, says formal studies matter less to her than what she has observed among the patients she’s worked with the last 10 years.
“It’s a no-brainer. It helps,” said Mueller. “Everyone I have known and taught has been helped by yoga.” The benefits she sees among cancer patients include:
- less pain
- lower anxiety and fear
- reduced nausea and fatigue
- increased sleep
- better memory (less brain fog or “chemo brain”)
- relief of neuropathy (a type of nerve pain)
- improved strength and flexibility
5 simple poses for patients
Yoga practice does not need to be vigorous or overly challenging to be therapeutic. Mueller suggests five simple poses for patients – coupled with deep and conscious breathing – that can be modified according to the patient’s physical ability:
- Tree pose (vrksasana) for balance; a modified version can be done with both feet on ground
- Table pose (goasana) for balance
- Child pose (balasana) to calm the mind
- Shoulder stand (sarvangasana); modified by using a wall for support
- Corpse pose (savasana); supported with bolsters on the neck
Even patients in the midst of grueling therapy may benefit from yoga, assuming they are cleared by a doctor, says Mueller. Her weekly classes on the City of Hope campus are restorative: focused on relaxation, rest and gentle movement. (Classes are offered in Spanish and English, and patients are encouraged to attend with a family member as a way to bond during what is a difficult experience.)
Conscious breathing works too
If getting to a class is difficult, Mueller suggests conscious breathing peppered through the day as a way of getting some of the same benefits as a class. Three slow and steady breaths during the day can help to reset.
“There is no person who wouldn’t benefit from a yoga practice, no matter what stage of treatment they are in,” she said. “Even in a hospital, sick in bed, learning how to breathe can help.”
Breath and body awareness helped Lilly immensely during her last few months of life, says Mueller. In the end, yoga became something that made her happy.
*The name of the patient used in this story has been changed to protect her health information.
Want to help raise awareness about the benefits of yoga for cancer patients? Register for #YogaforHope Phoenix on Nov. 5, 2016. Yogis, yoginis and cancer survivors will be gathering at center field of Chase Field for a unique experience that blends yoga, music, shopping and compassion. Your participation will help raise funds for the groundbreaking research that happens at City of Hope.
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