Anxiety doesn’t abate once treatment starts, of course. Instead it gets tossed in with myriad other concerns, both physical and emotional. Although side effects vary widely—depending on the treatment protocol and the individual—nausea, fatigue, insomnia, foggy thinking, digestive disorders, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing rank high on the complaint list for many patients. Luckily, yoga can help manage these symptoms. And the research bears this out. Two small studies at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center used a form of gentle restorative yoga from the Integral Yoga Center’s cancer program. Suzanne Danhauer, PhD, who directed the studies on women with breast and ovarian cancers (61 percent of whom were concurrently receiving conventional cancer treatment), said the women enjoyed improvements in fatigue levels, depression, anxiety, and overall quality of life. After analyzing the data, Danhauer said, she noticed that the women who had the hardest time emotionally coping with their illness actually benefited the most from the deep relaxation they experienced.
Women were able “to find meaning in their illness experience,” a variable, he says, that is associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being.
Lorenzo Cohen, MD, professor and director of MD Anderson’s integrative medicine program, has long had an interest in yoga’s effect on cancer treatment side effects. His first study, published in 2004 in the journal Cancer, showed that doing yoga improved sleep quality. Patients with lymphoma who were undergoing conventional treatment reported that they slept longer, fell asleep quicker, and relied on fewer sleep meds when they did yoga just once a week. His second study, in collaboration with Bangalore’s Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, demonstrated that women with breast cancer who participated in yoga classes while undergoing radiation performed better at daily tasks by the end of treatment—tasks like lifting and carrying groceries or climbing a flight of stairs. But equally as interesting, Cohen—whose grandmother, by the way, was world-renowned yogini Vanda Scaravelli—noticed that the women were able “to find meaning in their illness experience,” a variable, he says, that is associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. In other words, even when scary, unbidden thoughts surfaced, the yoga group had an easier time noticing them and letting them go.
These studies, and more, proved to the medical and science communities what yogis have known for millennia: Yoga works. For the women and men experiencing the harsh side effects of cancer treatment, yoga offers a respite from the emotional chaos and the physical challenges they face. Jeannine Walston, whose own journey with a brain tumor has sometimes thrown her into a state of disconnect, believes that the supportive practice of yoga helped her find her center. “Yoga brings me back into my breath and my body,” she says. “When I do yoga, my body opens into and remembers patterns that intrinsically restore a healing state.” She takes comfort in the group experience as well and sees it as an invitation “for everyone to move in a collective,” which is in itself profoundly healing.
Integral Yoga teacher Lynn Felder encourages her students to do restorative asana and calming pranayama during treatment. She says so much is going on in the body, and the body is working so hard to deal with it all, that “it’s good to be still, listen, and be with what is.” Sometimes just sitting is enough, she says.
Tari Prinster, the director of OM Yoga’s Women Cancer Survivors program, needed a stronger, more physical practice to get her through her initial rounds of chemotherapy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She hated the anti-anxiety meds her doctors wanted to give her before each treatment, so she said no, thank you, and hired a friend to come over and do yoga with her instead. “We would go through a simple vinyasa practice, sit in meditation, and then I would go off to my treatment,” she said. She used pranayama to calm her anxiety during her chemo and then, immediately following, she made a point to do a little yoga, walk, or even ride her bike. “I wanted the residual toxins to move out of my body as quickly as possible.”
Ann Pendley, an 11-year survivor of breast cancer, says yoga helps her stay focused and present. “I don’t run away from my emotions as much,” she says. “When things come up, they just come up.” Just showing up for class for Ann mitigates the side effects from her drug treatments, whether she does a full 90 minutes of asana or can only muster a 10-minute shavasana. Even a little bit of relaxation helps her be aware and awake the rest of the day.