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Yoga for People With Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 28, 2020

Yoga can help people with cancer both mentally and physically, research shows. While it can't fight cancer itself, yoga may ease some side effects of the disease and its treatments. Some studies have found that yoga might:

Yoga is a mind-body practice long thought to help reduce stress and boost flexibility. It has three main elements:

Look for classes that include each of these. There's no one type of yoga or yoga pose that's best for people with cancer. But research suggests that less strenuous types can help with some side effects of treatment. These include gentle hatha yoga and restorative yoga.

Effects on Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue is physical, emotional, or mental tiredness that affects your everyday life. You can have it before, during, and after cancer treatment and as a cancer survivor, too.

Most people with cancer have fatigue at some point. But many of the studies on yoga and fatigue were done only in women.

One overview study found that yoga reduced fatigue in women during and after treatment for breast cancer. It found that yoga brought:

  • A major improvement in fatigue after treatment
  • A small improvement during treatment

It helped most with physical fatigue, though it eased mental fatigue somewhat, too.

Other research shows similar benefits. In one study, women with breast cancer did a yoga program twice a week. By the end of 8 weeks, most of them felt it helped with their fatigue.

Another study looked at yoga breathing exercises. One exercise involved deep inhalations, followed by long exhalations while making a humming sound. (It's known as Bhramari pranayama.) Even without physical yoga poses, the breathing exercises reduced fatigue in some people who were getting radiation for cancer.

Yoga and Sleep

The stress and side effects of cancer treatment often get in the way of good sleep. That can lead to:

  • Too much daytime napping
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Waking up too early

A review of several studies suggests that yoga could help. A yoga program combining gentle poses, breathing, and meditation reduced insomnia in people with cancer as well as cancer survivors.

Another study looked at how a Tibetan yoga program affected people with lymphoma. This type of yoga includes breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and low-impact poses. It helped some of those with lymphoma:

  • Fall asleep faster
  • Get more sleep
  • Use less sleep medication

Recovery From Cancer Surgery

The distress many women feel before breast cancer surgery can hurt their recovery. Stress before surgery has been linked to more pain, longer hospital stays, and more complications. Yoga might help.

One study compared two strategies for women about to have a lumpectomy or mastectomy: rehab exercise plus counseling, or yoga.

Those women who did yoga before surgery had better results, including:

  • Shorter hospital stays
  • Fewer days with surgical drains (small plastic tubes used to remove blood and fluids)
  • Fewer days before their stitches were removed

Chemo Side Effects

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it can come with serious side effects. One is a type of nerve damage called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). It usually happens in your hands and feet. It can cause:

  • Tingling, or a "pins and needles" feeling
  • Pain or a burning sensation
  • Muscle weakness

One small, preliminary study looked at how yoga and meditation affected people with CIPN. After 8 weeks, they saw:

  • More flexibility
  • Better balance
  • Less risk of falls

Study participants also felt that the yoga program eased their pain, improved function, and helped them relax.

Mental Health Benefits

Distress, depression, and anxiety are common in people with cancer. Many studies suggest yoga may ease them. An overview study linked yoga to improvements in:

  • Negativity
  • Distress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-esteem
  • Spiritual well-being

Not all studies have found that yoga improves the mental well-being of people with cancer. If that’s the case for you, ask your doctor about different options. And stick with yoga for its other benefits.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Current Oncology Reports: "Yoga for the Management of Cancer Treatment-Related Toxicities."

Supportive Care in Cancer: "Review of Yoga Therapy During Cancer Treatment."

Breast Cancer Research and Treatment: "Yoga Has a Solid Effect on Cancer-Related Fatigue in Patients With Breast Cancer."

International Journal of Yoga: "Effectiveness of pranayama on cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy," "Influence of yoga on postoperative outcomes and wound healing in early operable breast cancer patients undergoing surgery."

The Journal of Nursing Research: "The Effect of Yoga Exercise on Improving Depression, Anxiety, and Fatigue in Women With Breast Cancer: A Randomized Controlled Trial."

European Medical Journal, Oncology: "Yoga as Treatment for Insomnia Among Cancer Patients and Survivors."

Cancer: "Psychological Adjustment and Sleep Quality in a Randomized Trial of the Effects of a Tibetan Yoga Intervention in Patients With Lymphoma."

Mayo Clinic: "Peripheral neuropathy," "Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity."

Integrative Cancer Therapies: "Impact of Somatic Yoga and Meditation on Fall Risk, Function, and Quality of Life for Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy Syndrome in Cancer Survivors."  

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