October marks breast cancer awareness month and yoga has proven to be a helpful tool in managing the detrimental side effects of the disease. With 1 in 8 women being impacted by breast cancer during their lifetime, it’s imperative that we stay knowledgeable, advance research efforts, and take preventative measures.
Yoga is one of the leading complementary therapies for breast cancer. Controlled breath along with mindful movement of yoga practice has been shown to help mitigate the myriad of negative effects resulting from breast cancer (of all stages). Specifically, yoga can aid in fighting disease associated fatigue, stiffness, depression and anxiety. Some specific results are outlined below:
Quality of Life
Quality of life (QOL) is the measure of overall well being of an individual and their state of contentment based on physical, mental, emotional, and social factors. It’s no surprise that a diagnosis of cancer and its effects can lead to a lower QOL. However, the practice of yoga has been correlated with an improved QOL in people with breast cancer. A study at MD Anderson Cancer Center showed that breast cancer patients who engaged in a 6-week yoga intervention during radiotherapy experienced increased QOL, specifically the aspect of physical functioning, which can be extremely beneficial to curb radiotherapy’s side effects of fatigue, nausea, stiffness, and lymphedema.
Breast cancer survivors have shown heightened levels of cortisol which is associated with risk of immune dysfunction and reduced survivorship. Cortisol, a stress hormone, becomes elevated when production levels surge due to stressors such as fatigue, depression, and anxiety. In studies of patients with breast cancer, lowered levels of cortisol were measured in groups participating in yoga classes. This evidence demonstrates how yoga may help individuals manage response to stressors, which elicits itself in cortisol regulation-- all leading to lower rates of depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
Fatigue and Inflammation
A major disruptor, fatigue and inflammation afflict around one third of breast cancer survivors on a daily basis. Inflammation and fatigue are often interrelated and can cause uncompromising decline in physical functioning. However, a regular yoga practice (two to three 90-minute sessions per week) can help combat the ill effects of sleep deprivation, fatigue, inflammation, and subsequent mood. A study from 2014 showed that proinflammatory cytokine production decreased significantly after implementation of yoga practice within 3 months while another study showed increased anti-inflammatory cytokine production. Basically, these studies have presented physical evidence displaying diminished levels of inflammation from yoga. Furthermore, more frequent yoga practice leads to greater benefits including less fatigue and increased vitality.
About one-third of breast cancer patients experience cognitive dysfunction after treatment, mostly attributable to chemotherapy and the treatment’s purported impairment of neural cells. This damaging decline displays as limited memory, attention, decision making, and learning. Physical activity is positively correlated to cognition in cancer patients, and yoga has shown to be an effective supportive treatment.
Drug Related Complications
Aromatase inhibitors (AI’s) are the leading hormonal therapy choice that postmenopausal women take after surgery/radiation/chemotherapy for breast cancer to prevent recurrence of disease. The most common type of breast cancer thrives on estrogen, and AI’s work to deplete or block estrogen so that those cancer cells cannot grow. Despite the immense success of AI’s in preventing recurrence, there are many side effects associated with the drug, with stiffness and joint pain occurring in nearly half of patients. Finding ways to cope with the drug’s effects is critical for preventing discontinuation and attaining comfort.
Yoga interventions on breast cancer patients have proven to ease the deleterious effects of AI’s. Particularly, research reveals significant diminution in stiffness (e.g., hand, knee, hip), pain, fatigue, and hot flashes in a 12-week yoga program. Interestingly, 100% of participants noted that they would recommend yoga to others suffering from AI-associated pain.
Acceptance and Relaxation
Breast cancer patients are the most distressed cancer survivors, and research has illustrated how yoga subsides cancer related negative emotions. In a study with premenopausal breast cancer participants (a group extra vulnerable to psychological distress), mindfulness-based interventions lead to improved well-being. Mindfulness techniques revolve around practicing sensational presentness, awareness, and acceptance. Another study conducted on metastatic breast cancer patients further supported yoga as a complementary therapy. The 8-week yoga intervention increased invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation while lessening pain.
From easing the effects of treatment, to learning acceptance, and finally to facilitating survivorship, yoga helps in nearly all dimensions of breast cancer. It’s necessary to note that while yoga does not cure, it does elicit changes within the body/mind that subdue the negative outcomes related to cancer. Compared to people who have never suffered from cancer, cancer survivors are more than twice as likely to have poor health and disability. So not only will yoga help in the short-term, but continual practice can help reverse the adverse aftereffects to which survivors are predisposed.
Given all of this information, it’s apparent that yoga has a favorable influence on breast cancer related symptoms. Please be mindful to seek a well-structured yoga program that provides a physical, mindful, and supportive component in a safe and effective manner.
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