Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion in research suggesting yoga as an effective adjunct therapy to breast (and all) cancer treatment. A recent article in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care cites yoga’s ability to generate a feeling of well-being for chemotherapy and radiation patients—both treatments are tremendously emotionally and physically stressful. The report also notes that asanas, which means holding a yoga pose firmly and comfortably, can help stimulate muscles, enhance blood and lymphatic flow, and boost the body’s internal purification processes. Similarly, a 2014 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute explored the use of integrative therapies in breast-cancer-endorsed yoga for elevating mood and easing depressive symptoms during radiation and chemotherapy, and suggested that it might be beneficial in treating the disrupted sleep that often descends on these patients.
That’s music to the ears of husband-wife breast cancer treatment duo Timothy Pearman, Ph.D., and his wife, Jenny Finkel. Pearman is the director of Supportive Oncology at Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chicago. Finkel is a yoga instructor at ChicagOm Yoga who works with breast cancer patients privately as well as at Northwestern and Gilda’s Club (also known as the Cancer Support Community, which has 50 local affiliates for patients and their family and friends across the country).
“Yoga in breast cancer isn’t necessarily new. The wellness movement of the 60s and 70s had patients trying yoga for symptom management,” Finkel says, “But what’s new is that it has become really accepted by the allopathic medical community. It took a while for science to catch up.”
With an estimated 48 to 80 percent of North American breast cancer survivors using complementary and integrative therapies following diagnosis, science can’t afford not to keep pace. As the authors of that Indian Journal of Palliative Care study wrote, “The deep, relaxing breathing often emphasized in yoga in cancer therapy also increases the current of oxygen-rich blood to the cells, delivering vital nutrients to tired cells and further clearing out toxins. For those recovering from surgery, such as that for breast cancer, yoga can help restore motion and flexibility in a gentle, balanced manner.”
Considering yoga has also been linked to increased energy, lowered rates of inflammation in cancer patients, and even improved happiness, there doesn’t seem to be much argument against trying it, so long as your doctor has cleared you for movement. Read on to learn how these four yoga poses can help ease the burden of cancer treatment symptoms.
For: Swelling and scar tissue post-surgery
Try: Mountain Pose to Upward Salute
Lumpectomies and mastectomies leave scar tissue, which form to fill the hole where breast tissue has been removed. This tissue can harden and become stiff, restricting movement through the chest and arms. Surgery—especially when lymph nodes are removed—can also lead to lymphedema (swelling), typically in the same arm as the affected breast. Finkel says that yoga’s emphasis on stretching and movement helps with fluid retention and breaks up scarring.
How to do it: Standing with feet together at the top of your mat, arms by your sides, inhale and lift arms out and up, with hands meeting overhead. Exhale as you bring both hands to your heart. Repeat 4 times. This pose can also be done while sitting in a chair.
For: Nausea from chemotherapy
Try: Child’s Pose
Nausea and vomiting are two hallmark symptoms of chemotherapy. “Grounding poses like Child’s Pose can help you feel more stable and less nauseous,” Finkel explains. The key is bringing your forehead into contact with a hard surface, like the floor or a wall.
How to do it: Begin by kneeling on your mat (or floor), big toes touching and knees hip-width apart. Lay forward so your torso rests between your thighs and your forehead is on the ground. Your arms can be on the floor alongside your torso, palms up or overhead, palms down. Take 10 deep breaths in and out. If getting up and down from the floor is too difficult, try child’s pose on the wall. Place both hands on a wall in mid-push up position. Then lean forward until your forehead is resting against the wall. Take 10 deep breaths in and out.
For: Depression, anxiety, and fatigue
Try: Restorative Backbend
Any type of exercise that gets your endorphins flowing is helpful for depression, but Pearman and Finkel like yoga in particular as it incorporates a mindfulness aspect for improved mood, pain management, stress relief, and improved sleep. In one study, cancer patients who practiced an hour of yoga daily over a 24-week period reported a significant drop in depressive symptoms compared to the non-yoga group, even in the face of surgery, radiotherapy, or chemotherapy.
Regular practice can also ease the anxiety that afflicts many cancer patients: A report presented at the 2015 Anxiety and Depression Association of America Conference linked yoga to reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And another Indian Journal of Palliative Care study from this summer suggested that yoga might have “possible antidepressant effects…in breast cancer patients undergoing conventional treatment.”
Finkel also notes that taking on a yoga practice feels empowering—a boon to patients in a situation that often feels out of control. “When you’re going through breast cancer, so much of what you do is dictated by an army of doctors. Yoga helps you feel like you’re taking matters into your own hands, and that can help with depression as well.”
How to do it: Roll a blanket into a tube shape and lay it on your mat, parallel to the long edges of the mat. Sit down at one end and lie down so the towel is lined up along your spine. Allow both arms to splay out to the sides. Your feet can be on the floor, hip-width apart and with knees falling in against one another. Or for a hip opener, bring the soles of your feet together and let the knees drop apart. Take 8 to 12 deep breaths.
For an added bonus, incorporate this mindfulness technique: Imagine your inhales as energizing and your exhales as relaxing. “So if you’re tired and your goal is to feel energized, take long, deep inhales for a count of six, hold for two beats, and exhale for three,” Finkel advises. “If your goal is to relax and sleep better, focus more on the exhale by inhaling for three, holding for two, and exhaling for six.” (Note: This pose is also helpful for improving flexibility in chest scars.)
For: Post-surgical osteoporosis
Try: Tree Pose
“Chemotherapy accelerates the onset of osteoporosis,” Pearman says. Considering many breast cancer patients are post-menopausal and therefore already at risk of this bone-weakening disease, adopting moves that build bone density is a good idea. That means weight-bearing poses like standing balances or Plank Pose. However, if you’ve just had surgery, or have temporary spacers in place in preparation for reconstruction, you likely won’t be able to bear weight on your arms or chest, so avoid planks. Also, Finkel warns against poses that cause vertical compression of the spinal disks, so avoid unsupported forward folds. Rather than sit with legs extended and rounding your spine in a forward fold, try lying down and using a strap to lift your leg up for a stretch.
How to do it: Begin by standing with feet together at the top of your mat, arms by your sides. Shift your weight slightly onto your right foot and bend your left knee, bringing it up and placing the sole against your inner right thigh (use your hands to hold your foot up if necessary). Place one or both hands on your hips or raise them up overhead while gazing at a fixed spot for balance. Alternatively, stand near a wall and keep a hand on it to avoid toppling. Breathe in and out 4 times then repeat on the other leg.