Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India, but modern research is finding it has many benefits for our health, even for people with cancer. UR Medicine’s Dr. Karen Mustian shares a few tips about yoga and how it may help people who have cancer and cancer survivors.
Health Matters: What are the physical benefits of yoga for those previously diagnosed with cancer?
Mustian: In general, research has shown yoga can help improve recovery and overall quality of life for cancer survivors by addressing toxicities resulting from cancer and its treatments. These toxicities include fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, distress, mood and even musculoskeletal pain. Research has shown it may also help with memory, infamously known as “chemo brain.” One of the most robust findings is that yoga improves overall quality of life as part of recovery.
How can yoga help a cancer patient mentally?
Mustian: Yoga is a practice not just of the body—as is the case with more traditional modes of exercise and physical activity—but also of the mind. Many cancer survivors and patients face feelings of anxiety and even depression as they go through treatment and even after treatments end. We conducted a study among 410 cancer survivors across the United States and found that yoga can relieve anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, and memory loss. It can also help ease feelings of distress and improve mood.
Is there a certain type of yoga recommended for people with cancer patients and cancer survivors?
Mustian: Research conducted around these benefits of yoga has focused on gentle hatha and restorative yoga. Power yoga is much more physically demanding and may not be ideal for those who are in treatment or who’ve just finished treatment. Additionally, heated yoga has not yet been tested for safety in people with cancer, so we cannot make any evidence-based recommendations regarding power or heated yoga for patients and survivors.
If I want to do yoga as a patient or survivor, where should I start?
Mustian: First and foremost, before beginning any exercise program, it’s important to talk to your oncology team to make sure it’s safe, especially if you’re still undergoing treatment. In almost all cases, it will be safe. If your doctors agree it’s safe and give you the green light to participate, start very slowly and also progress very slowly, using appropriate modifications when necessary.
Also be mindful that yoga is a practice and, as such, it takes practice—the more you do it, the stronger you will become and the more comfortable you will start to feel. Always listen to your body. In fact, one of the most important aspects of yoga is learning about your body and how to listen to your body. There will be days you feel energized and days you feel tired; learning to work with this information is a huge part of what you will gain as part of a yoga practice.
It’s important to find a yoga instructor who is certified to teach people who have cancer. A good place to start is to look for Yoga Alliance and International Association of Yoga Therapists Certified instructors and ask about their personal experience working with cancer patients. For current and former Wilmot patients, yoga classes are available at WCI’s Pluta Cancer Center every Thursday from 1 to 2:15 p.m. Some area organizations, such as Gilda’s Club and the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, also offer classes.
Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H., is an associate professor in Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Cancer Control and Survivorship Program. She is also director of URMC’s PEAK Lab and has led numerous studies on cancer and yoga.