Yoga, Cancer Care and Cancer Survivorship


Physical & Sexual Health
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As a yoga teacher, I’ve worked with many different people:  fitness buffs, pregnant women, seniors, cross-fit addicts, high school students and cancer patients. More often than not, participants leave class feeling relaxed and in a positive mood. Exercise has many benefits, including this sense of heightened wellness. However, many would agree that yoga is more than just an exercise. Yoga is a 5,000-year-old practice stressing an importance not only on physical movements and postures (asana), but also on meditation, breathing techniques (pranayama) and self-inquiry. These distinctions make yoga feel more healing on an emotional level than a more traditional exercise routine.
What yoga does best… it offers many tools to manage stress including the use of breathing, feeling tension in our bodies, and breathing through it. [It helps us] assess ourselves, because we’ve lost control as cancer patients – everyone’s telling us what to do – [after treatment], you’ve got to find what’s right for your body…and yoga can help. - Jean Di Carlo-Wagner, M.A., E-RYT500, Yoga Therapist

Studies on exercise and cancer survivorship 

Avoid physical activity when you’re feeling fatigued or have a low red blood cell count. Always speak to your doctor prior to beginning a workout routine.
It has been proven that exercise reduces cancer risk – but what is less clear is how exercise affects cancer survivorship. A 2006 study published on cancer survivors and exercise in the Journal of Medical Oncology observed close to 600 women with stage I-III non-metastatic CRC. Results showed that increased exercise did, in fact, reduce cancer-specific and overall mortality compared to women who didn’t exercise.

How much and what kind of exercise?

The study showed that women who performed less than three hours of exercise per week had the poorest results; however, there is no precise standard for cancer patients on how long to exercise, and how often. The best advice is to move daily using low-impact routines that are pain free. Yoga provides low-impact movement that could be one exercise to consider.

Benefits of yoga for cancer patients and survivors?

There can be many benefits for cancer patients and survivors who practice yoga. A few include:
  1. Managed depression through breathing techniques and the increase of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which boosts overall mood
  2. Reduction of stress
  3. Lower fatigue and increased overall energy
  4. Improved flexibility
  5. Improved sleep quality
  6. Increased quality of life

Are there side effects of yoga?

Ensure all yoga props (blocks, mats, blankets) are cleaned well prior to use (and following use) to avoid getting sick.
Side effects of yoga could include shortness of breath, potential falling when balance is compromised and injury such as torn ligaments. Although rare, blood clots and nerve damage have been reported. Make sure you practice with a well-trained teacher you feel comfortable with, and always stop what you’re doing if you feel pain, nausea, or shortness of breath.

Best yoga for cancer patients? 

Many types of yoga offered today are vigorous and should be avoided if you’re in treatment. Look for classes such as Yoga Therapy, Gentle Yoga, Yoga for Cancer Patients, Chair Yoga, Beginner Yoga, Hatha Yoga or Restorative. Avoid classes that are heated (such as Bikram Yoga or Hot Yoga). If you’re already a seasoned practitioner, listen to your body and modify postures as needed – it’s important not to push yourself too hard, rather it’s best to honor your body by resting when appropriate.
I took a low impact [yoga] class and I thought, “I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do this again after surgery.” Turned out I didn’t do much of anything that year. I was physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually drained. I didn’t know how to start. Now there are so many resources… you just have to know when you’re ready. - Jean Di Carlo-Wagner

How do I find a yoga class or a teacher?

Consider working one-on-one with a yoga instructor, especially if you’re new to the practice. You will learn to modify your practice should you decide to participate in group classes.
There are many yoga instructors with a variety of trainings. Find a teacher you trust, who engages in discussion about your goals and intentions for beginning a yoga practice. It’s a great idea to ask local yoga studios if they have teachers that might be appropriate for you. Here are the steps:
  1. Know where you are physically, know what you hope to get out of the yoga class and understand your personal energy level.
  2. Identify a yoga studio.
  3. Call the yoga studio to ask if they have any gentle classes appropriate for someone going through cancer treatment or someone new to yoga.
  4. Inquire about teachers at the studio:  are there any that are yoga therapists or any that work with people who have chronic disease?
If you’re looking for yoga teachers trained to work with cancer patients, visit Yoga 4 Cancer. If you’re interested in practicing at home, visit Yoga Bear. For more resources, visit Jean DiCarlo-Wagner’s site Yoga Being: Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors.

The takeaway

Yoga allows you to access deep levels of healing.
There are many studies about the benefits of yoga and chronic disease and other cancers such as breast cancer. We expect studies in the future to demonstrate similar benefits in colorectal cancer patients. Currently, we look to the research conducted through the lens of other types of cancers in addition to personal stories from those who have experienced the benefits of integrating yoga into their cancer treatment and survivorship regimen. According to Jean Di-Carlo Wagner,
There is a separation from the body and the spirit – and after cancer you have to come back into this body that is new to you…  you have to find out where the trauma lies. Yoga allows many to access deep levels of healing to help overcome the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges faced during and following cancer treatment. It gives an opportunity for gentle movement paired with reflection and the space to connect to your body in a meaningful and loving way.

Jean DiCarlo-Wagner is a colorectal cancer survivor. Since 2005, she has been teaching yoga in San Diego, California and online and offers a class called Yoga for Healing – A Cancer Survivors Class.