Unpacking the Research and Best Teaching Practices for Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

by | Jan 21, 2021

This post is part of an ongoing public discussion relating to the scientific research on yoga and cancer. It follows a two-part online webinar, Yoga for Breast Cancer Patients and Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, and three subsequent CE methods seminars with experts in the field. These seminars can be found on our events archive here. Comments are welcome in the comment field provided below this post. All comments are moderated for content and may or may not be published.

Research shows yoga offers many options for breast cancer patients and survivors.

Although modern conventional medicine continues to be proficient in extending the lifespan of those diagnosed with cancer, it is not as well-equipped for addressing the stress and mental health consequences of being diagnosed with and treated for a life-threatening disease.

Yoga is emerging as a useful complementary approach alongside conventional treatments as patients and caregivers form strategies of healing from diagnosis to life after treatment. To begin a series of conversations hosted by Yoga Alliance and moderated by me, Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Yoga Alliance’s Director of Yoga Research and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, covered the scientific research on yoga for breast cancer in two lectures, Yoga for Breast Cancer Patients and Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors. I then moderated a methodology conversation with teaching experts on yoga for breast cancer, called Applications of Scientific Research on Breast Cancer and Yoga, with Dr. Lois Steinberg, Tari Prinster, Kiersten Gallagher, and Smitha G. Mallaiah of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. This group shared teaching methods and strategies for working with breast cancer patients while focusing on the fact that behind every diagnosis of breast cancer is an individual woman with her own specific health needs and story..

A multi-component practice that’s infinitely modifiable

Yoga provides many tools to reduce the stress and mental health burden associated with confronting the realities of cancer. Dr. Khalsa illustrated in his presentations that yoga practices have shown efficacy in studies in tackling side effects of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Initial evidence in this fast-growing body of research also suggests that yoga might even boost the immune function of cancer patients and survivors in the way that it helps mitigate treatment side effects. Perhaps just as compelling for caregivers and survivors alike, yoga appears to be lower in cost than pharmacological approaches to stress, mood disturbances, sleep, and other side effects.

Yoga also has no negative side effects, which both Dr. Khalsa and the expert group mentioned several times during their webinars.

Most interesting in the presentations was learning that while many in conventional medicine have historically been “afraid we will ‘break’ cancer patients” with yoga treatments, our group of yoga experts all agreed that this is a harmful misunderstanding of what patients and survivors both need in their journey. The group asserted that yoga teachers should focus on all levels of the students’ strengths, even if that strength comes only through simple breathwork or pranayama.

 

Catch my follow-up sessions with Dr. Steinberg and Tari Prinster, who sat down with me to discuss the methods from their lineages on working with those with or having survived breast cancer.

Of the comorbidities experienced with breast cancer, yoga research has assessed the efficacy of yoga for all of the consequences of diagnosis and side effects of treatment (left), though there is more of a body of work on the efficacy for the consequences.

Indeed, the benefits of doing yoga from diagnosis to post-treatment are convincing enough that the American Society of Clinical Oncology issued a consensus statement, which is read by clinicians and oncologists who are directly working with patients and thereby integrating this approach into the field.

Dr. Khalsa also put it this way: “You want to try not to give chemotherapy patients more drugs.” He referenced a study published in Sage Journals concluding that treatments such as yoga were better than medications for insomnia and sleep disturbance, for example, given that there are no negative side effects of doing yoga to improve sleep.

Three citation highlights

In a study of healthcare providers’ awareness of yoga as a modality for those with cancer, “Increasing provider awareness of and recommendations for yoga and meditation classes for cancer patients,” published in the journal Supportive Care for Cancer, “…43% were unaware at baseline that yoga and meditation classes were offered through the cancer center and 55% responded that they rarely or never recommend yoga or meditation for patients.” Following a brief presentation on yoga for cancer, 90% of providers expressed an increased likelihood of doing so.

In a 2018 study by the National Institutes of Health,  “A Restorative Yoga Intervention for African-American Breast Cancer Survivors: a Pilot Study,” yoga was seen to have “a beneficial effect on depression in African American Breast Cancer Survivors.”

Another 2018 study, also by NIH, “Can yoga have any effect on shoulder and arm pain and quality of life in patients with breast cancer? A randomized, controlled, single-blind trial,” concluded that yoga was “an effective and safe exercise for alleviating shoulder and arm pain, which is a complication with a high prevalence in patients with breast cancer.”

Research Citations

About the Author

About the Author

Kim Weeks

(RYS 200, RYS 500, E-RYT 500, CEP)

Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher and wellness expert, and founder of a wellness consulting and education company called Weeks Well, whose mission is to foster transformation in work and life.

Videos Associated With This Article

Cancer and Yoga

Unpack the fast-growing body of research on yoga and its relationship to cancer and cancer-related symptoms. This conversation will specifically touch on some of the most researched cancers today and how yoga can be utilized by those living with this medical condition.

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