If you practice yoga, you know how therapeutic it is and how relaxed you feel afterward. Today, this 5,000-year-old practice is even proving to help breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. A recent study finds that when these patients add yoga to their routine, it helps counter some common side effects of radiation treatments, including fatigue.
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“This was one of the first studies that looked at a regimen of yoga combined with radiation therapy for breast cancer,” says radiation oncologist Rahul Tendulkar, MD. As a randomized study, he says it is the gold standard by which clinicians make recommendations.
Relaxation, meditation for health
Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation. It has other health benefits, especially for those with chronic diseases, as well as cancer.
The study looked at 163 women with breast cancer (stages 0-III). The women were put into three randomized groups. The first group did yoga. The second group focused on basic stretching exercises. The third group received no instruction in yoga or stretching.
The first two groups attended one-hour exercise classes tailored specifically to women with breast cancer three times each week throughout their six weeks of radiation treatments.
At various times, the women reported on their quality of life. They rated levels of fatigue and depression, sleep quality and their ability to function on a daily basis. They also measured their ability to find meaning in their illness experience. Researchers collected saliva samples and administered electrocardiogram tests.
Reducing stress, fatigue during treatment
Among the findings, women who did yoga had the steepest decline in their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which meant that yoga helped regulate the hormone. This is important because there is a link between higher or increased levels of cortisol and worse outcomes in breast cancer.
Moreover, only the women who did yoga or stretching reported a reduction in fatigue.
Even more important, the results appear to last. The women who did yoga reported greater improvements to physical functioning and daily health at one, three and six months after they had completed their radiation therapy.
Finding meaning, returning to everyday life
The study also found that those women were more likely to find meaning in their cancer experience than women in the other groups.
The mental and physical rigor of practicing yoga also provided a coping technique to help with the transition back to everyday life, according to study results. That transition is often difficult and quite stressful when patients are no longer receiving a high level of medical attention and care.
“Yoga is something that patients can do on their own or at home,” says Dr. Tendulkar. He says for minimal cost, these women can see a meaningful improvement in their quality of life.