Breast Cancer and Yoga

Patient Expert

Marcie Pruett, 39, of San Diego, California has been battling breast cancer for the past three years. After two surgeries, two cycles of chemotherapy and radiation, and a course of oral chemotherapy for the past six months, she feels thirty years older than her age. "My bones and my muscles ache, and it's difficult to move around or crouch." Six weeks ago, she started a beginner's yoga class, and the gentle stretching and rolling that promotes flexibility, strength and mental relaxation has helped her greatly. "I feel good from the night of the class to well into the next day," she says.

Pruett is not the only one in the yoga class with a connection to breast cancer. Her instructor, Susan Rosen, is a survivor who has made an instructional yoga video for breast cancer survivors and teaches similarly themed workshops, including a class at Kaiser Permanente's Positive Choice Wellness Center in San Diego.

One of Rosen's favorite poses for breast cancer patients, shown in the photo above, begins with lying on your back, with arms extended out to the sides and gently supported on blankets. The relaxing pose opens the chest, helps circulation, improves range of motion and helps reduce the discomfort of tight scar tissue. "If you've had a mastectomy or lymph nodes removed, restorative poses on your upper body help you to stretch," Rosen says.

While many in the medical community dismiss mind-body interventions such as yoga, massage, Reiki, and Tai Chi as New Age hocus-pocus, it's not unusual for cancer patients to use these techniques to help them deal with the lingering side effects of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. There is a small but growing body of evidence that for breast cancer patients yoga improves quality of life, decreases fatigue, reduces stress, and may boost the immune system.

These studies include:

  • A study of the Iyengar method of yoga conducted at Washington State University, Spokane, found that the style promotes psychological well-being and perhaps boosts the immune system of women in treatment for breast cancer.

Whether certain types of yoga Indian verus Tibetan, or certain poses, are more beneficial to breast cancer patients, is an open question. "I tell patients to see what works best for them. It's not always the technique. Sometimes, it can be the instructor," says M. Alejandro Choul, Ph.D., a mind-body intervention specialist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, who works on the yoga research and teaches classes. He notes that meditation techniques can help ease patients through radiation and chemotherapy, and that patients report that yoga has reduced their pain levels for everything from headaches to shoulder or joint pain.

With her post-surgery patients, Rosen prefers Iyengar yoga because props such as blankets and belts help them get into poses. "Often, after their illness, women are not standing straight or opening their chests enough. Their chests are sunken in and they're not getting enough oxygen. Any type of yoga helps."

Yoga experts say that stretching and contracting muscles helps stimulate the flow of lymph, which helps rid your body of the fluid that collects waste. The largest clusters of lymph nodes are in the armpits, next to the breasts. Poses that involve placing your feet over your head improve general circulation. After a lumpectomy, poses that free up the shoulder area help the healing process.

The medical community, which has been slower than patients to endorse mind-body interventions, are coming around. "I see more yoga being offered at traditional cancer centers. At the very least, doctors are convinced that it does no harm, so they say go ahead and do it," says Dr. Joel Evans, an assistant clinical professor of ob-gyn at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and a yoga proponent.

While no studies prove, yet, that yoga can shrink or prevent tumors, yoga can help breast cancer patients recover from treatment's side effects. By increasing agility, stretching sore muscles, reducing stress, easing fatigue and pain, and empowering patients through their participation in their own healing, yoga can be a powerful tool. Says Pruett: " I look forward to yoga and it relaxes me. I plan on sticking with it and making it part of my life."

Beth's Advice on Getting Started:

There is no expert consensus on the optimal type of yoga for breast cancer patients and survivors. The best way to start is to try classes until you find a style or instructor that works for you. Many community centers and YMCAs offer low-cost or free yoga classes. Gym memberships often include free yoga classes. A yoga mat can increase your stability and balance and makes lying or kneeling on the floor more comfortable. While special clothing is not required, baggy or thick garments might hinder some movements.