Practicing yoga may help manage the side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer patients, according to a recent study led by the director of the integrative medicine program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, and meditation may help with symptoms such as fatigue, lower levels of stress hormones, and improve physical functioning and daily health. “Yoga is having an impact on subjective well-being, as well as better regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone,” said study co-author Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “Better regulation of stress hormones has been linked with better survival and longer survival.”
During the study, researchers analyzed data from 163 women with breast cancer between stages 0 and 3, who were divided into three randomized groups. The first group practiced yoga and the second one underwent basic stretching exercises during one-hour exercise classes designed for women with breast cancer three times each week throughout their six weeks of radiation treatments, while the third group received no instruction in yoga or stretching.
Patients were asked to make a report of their quality of life at various points during the six weeks regarding levels of fatigue and depression, sleep quality, and their ability to function on a daily basis, as well as their ability to find meaning in their illness experience. At the same time, the researchers collected saliva samples and performed electrocardiogram tests.
The women from the first group were the ones who showed a greater decrease in cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone, suggesting that yoga has effects on hormone regulation. The same group reported greater improvements to physical functioning and daily health at one, three, and six months after finishing radiation therapy. Both the first and second groups reported reductions in fatigue. No differences were found between the groups for mental health and sleep quality.
“This was one of the first studies that looked at a regimen of yoga combined with radiation therapy for breast cancer,” said radiation oncologist Rahul Tendulkar, MD. As a randomized study, he says it is the gold standard by which clinicians make recommendations. Other studies had already established that yoga can help cancer patients, however, they either examined a small numbers of patients or didn’t compare it to a control group, limiting the results.
Although recommending exercise to cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy that already makes them tired may sound counterintuitive, Cohen believes that “it’s important for breast cancer patients to engage in some sort of activity to buffer” and that yoga is an important mind-body approach to help patients get physical activity, relax, and calm their mind. There are a wide range of accessible yoga classes available, and the researcher suggests patients consult their physician first and then find an appropriate yoga teacher or class designed for cancer patients.