Yoga Helped Women With Breast Cancer Feel Better

Breast cancer symptoms improved with yoga

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Yoga isn’t just a good exercise for healthy people; research suggests it may have positive effects for certain cancer patients as well.

A recent study found that women undergoing radiation for breast cancer felt better physically and were less tired than women who did not practice yoga while receiving radiation treatment.

The women who did yoga also had lower cortisol levels than women not taking yoga. Cortisol is a hormone released in the body in response to stress. In previous research, high levels of the hormone have been associated with worse survival rates in women with breast cancer.

"Ask your oncologist what you can do to feel better during cancer treatment."

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, led this study, which included 163 women with stage 1-3 breast cancer undergoing radiation. These women came from an institutional database or were referred by their doctor.

Each of the women was randomly assigned to one of three groups. Fifty-three women did yoga, 56 did stretching, and 54 women were placed on a wait list and not assigned to any exercise.

Throughout the study, the women self-reported on quality of life using a 36-item survey and gave saliva samples to assess cortisol levels.

Women in both the yoga and stretching exercise groups took part in up to three 60-minute classes per week during the six weeks of their radiation treatments. Most classes were taught one on one. In addition, the women were given an audio CD and written manuals and encouraged to practice at home.

The yoga program was taught by a VYASA-trained teacher. VYASA is a Patanjali-based integrated yoga program for patients with breast cancer developed by the Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana. This program includes select postures such as the cobra posture, meditation and nostril breathing. The stretching program was taught by a physiotherapist.

The women had six weeks of treatment but were assessed on their self-reported physical well-being, general health, mental health, sleep quality and cortisol levels at different points during the study, up to six months after the start of the study.

The researchers found that women who participated in the yoga fared the best. While women who did stretches reported better physical functioning and less fatigue than the wait group, the yoga participants reported the highest well-being and the lowest cortisol levels of all.

None of the women in any group reported improved sleep at night or better mental health.

However, the yoga participants were more likely to find meaning in their disease than women in the other two groups.

Rusty Gregory, a personal trainer and wellness coach in Austin, Texas, was not surprised by the study results. “Yoga’s effect on the quality of life of a breast cancer survivor should go unquestioned. Its stress-reducing qualities lower cortisol levels, improving survival rates,” he said. “In addition, an increase in strength, confidence, energy, and sleep efficiency accompanies a well attended yoga program.”

This study appears in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The authors reported no potential conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 2, 2014
Last Updated:
March 4, 2014