Integrating Yoga into Breast Cancer Care

Cancer. It’s a scary topic. Just about everyone you meet will know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, and it may even be themselves. Cancer of any kind and the pharmacological treatments for it can result in decreased overall quality of life, respiratory problems, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, lymphedema, impaired balance and several psychological/emotional symptoms. Unfortunately, this list by no means includes all of the side effects of cancer and pharmacological treatments. And by no means does this mean that people with cancer experience each and every one of these side effects. Every person is different. 

It’s common for people fighting cancer of any kind not to feel particularly motivated for exercise, including yoga. So why do I want to convince you to try yoga? For starters, it addresses each of the aforementioned side effects. I frequently work with women who find improvement in their symptoms by participating in an appropriate yoga program. But notice how I say “improvement”. In no way is this post meant to suggest that doing yoga will cure cancer-related symptoms, or even cancer itself. But provide relief from difficulty sleeping? Improvement in fatigue? Boost quality of life? Yes, yes, and yes. 

A recent systematic review concluded that individuals with breast cancer who participate in yoga while undergoing chemotherapy experience less nausea, depression, and return to work faster than those individuals who do not participate in yoga1. But what if you already exercise, it’s just not yoga? First of all, good for you! But it’s worth noting that another recent study showed that strength, perception of fatigue, and quality of life improve with the addition of yoga to an already established exercise program, when results are compared to just exercise alone, for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer2. Both of these studies (plus many more out there!) support the use of yoga following a breast cancer diagnosis! 

Since fatigue is one of the most common side effects experienced, it also helps that yoga can be completed at home, a gym, a healthcare center, or wherever is most convenient for you. You can chose the complexity across the entire spectrum depending on what you have energy for: full weight-bearing poses to poses while seated in a chair. Even ten minutes of yoga, regardless of the complexity, will benefit you and eventually assist with this fatigue. 

Even cancer survivors may continue to feel the effects of their cancer diagnosis and/or pharmacological side effects long after treatment has stopped. According to Jones et. al (2012), survivors of breast cancer show impaired cardiopulmonary functioning when compared to individuals of the same age who do/did not have a cancer diagnosis3. However, after only four weeks, a structured yoga program may result in improved functional capacity, quality of life, and anxiety/depression for survivors of breast cancer4.

Now we all know that cancer doesn’t only affect the person who carries the diagnosis. It also affects our family and friends. Having a loved one diagnosed with cancer (regardless of the type) can wear on us. We have trouble sleeping, struggle with anxiety and/or depression, and overall have a reduction in our quality of life. Yoga is common practice for not only individuals diagnosed with cancer, but also for family and/or friends. 

I work with a lot of individuals following their breast cancer diagnosis specifically for lymphedema treatment and prevention. Especially if you had axillary lymph nodes removed (which are near your arm pit), you are most likely at greater risk for developing lymphedema. As a certified lymphedema therapist, I am in full support of the use of yoga to assist with the management of symptoms, as long as this is done safely. Not all yoga poses are appropriate for everyone, and it’s important to work with a trained professional to set up an appropriate program for you. For additional information on yoga for lymphedema, read my blog post here

Have I convinced you to try yoga yet? And maybe bring your loved one with you in the process? Good! While this article is aimed at individuals with breast cancer, I’d encourage individuals with cancer of any kind to look into yoga and see if it would be appropriate for you. 

Let’s talk about some of my favorite beginner yoga poses for individuals who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or are recovering from their breast cancer diagnosis. However, please clear all exercise with your physician before attempting.

1.Child’s Pose: The relationship of fatigue and cancer is a real thing. What happens when we’re fatigued? We sit. What happens when we sit? We slouch. Child’s Pose is an excellent way to stretch out your arms and back. 

Begin on hands and knees. Slowly lower your hips down and back towards your feet, leaving your arms stretched above your head. Relax your head and neck, feeling yourself lower closer to your mat the longer you hold the stretch.

2. Bridge: Glute engagement! Spine mobility! Core strengthening! This pose hits it all. And easy to do from the comfort of your own bed 🙂 

Begin laying on your back. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground. Push through your feet and shoulders, slowly lifting your hips up. Hold at the top. And slowly lower your hips back towards to ground, mindfully trying to move one vertebrae at a time.

3. Cat/Cow: What I love about this pose is it can be done in the traditional hands and knees position, along with while sitting or standing. It’s an excellent pose to start working on trunk flexibility and control. 

For the traditional pose (while keeping in mind the modifications listed above), begin on your hands and knees. Your hands should be shoulder width apart, with your knees hip width apart. Exhale and begin to arch your back, leading with your pelvis. As your back arches higher and higher, relax your neck while your head begins to point towards the ground.
Inhale, and gently flow towards moving your stomach towards the ground (again, leading with the pelvis) while gradually lifting your head up.

4. Warrior 1: Like we talked about earlier, impaired balance is a common side effect experienced by individuals diagnosed with cancer. This pose is wonderful to begin to address balance, and stability with transitional movements. Begin by holding onto a steady object (e.g. bed, chair, etc) and make this pose more complex by widening your stance and trying it on different surfaces. 

Begin at the front of your mat with your arms at your side. Slowly step one foot back, slightly bending your front knee in the process. Tuck your pelvis “in” towards your spine. If you’d like, slowly lift your arms up while keeping your shoulder blades back and your shoulders down.

Just like every person is different, every yoga practice should be different as well. Your yoga practice should reflect your needs. I hope these poses give you a good start, but if you need more help let me know ♥

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