Move For Your Health: Yoga in Cancer Care

Empowerment in unity...

I spent 7 years working as an oncology nurse practitioner and have witnessed firsthand the devastating effects a cancer diagnosis elicits; for the person facing the diagnosis as well as loved ones.  Learning about any cancer diagnosis is psychologically distressing and the accompanying treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are both physically and mentally arduous.  Side effects following the completion of treatment may leave you frustrated, scared, angry and feeling as if you're a stranger in your own body. As if a tornado picked you up and spit you out, your mind and body whirl in contemplation of past experiences, prognosis, future events and a fight for remission.  That's probably an understatement.  No, definitely an understatement, which is why self-care during and after cancer treatment is crucial to help prevent and better manage treatment related side effects, facilitate healing and help navigate that inevitable emotional rollercoaster.

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery work to target the disease specifically, however a cancer diagnosis affects the entire body and mind.  The connection between the two is often severed with treatment. Integrating mind-body therapies during treatment and beyond can fill the gap often left out in traditional cancer care. 

Yoga has been used throughout the centuries as a form of movement that benefits the mind and body and strengthens the connection between the two. A growing body of research shows that mind-body therapies, such as yoga, are a safe and effective way to help cancer survivors cope with physical and mental symptoms related to cancer. These studies have shown that yoga can:

  • Decrease nausea
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost the immune system
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Decrease pain
  • Increase range of motion, flexibility and balance
  • Improve circulation and lymphatic flow
  • Help manage stress, anxiety, depression and fear
  • Improve body image
  • Provide enhanced quality of life and sense of well-being

Some studies also show that yoga can reduce hot flashes in breast cancer survivors.

Tree Pose on Mount Kilimanjaro

Tree Pose on Mount Kilimanjaro

Yoga focuses on controlled breathing (pranayama), movement through a series of postures (asanas) and meditation (dhyana). It is an ideal form of self-care and movement for cancer survivors because it helps ease a variety of treatment related symptoms and it can build strength, increase flexibility and improve balance while still remaining gentle on the body.  Positions can be modified depending on skill level or for any stage of cancer treatment- whether you are newly diagnosed, actively receiving treatment, recovering from surgery or are a long-term survivor.

A regular practice, which helps you reconnect to your body both emotionally and spiritually, provides the greatest benefit. By concentrating on your breathing and the movements, you are able to focus on the present moment, improve oxygen flow throughout the body and calm the mind.  With frequent yoga practice, the ability to remain present and use the pranayama breath to wash away fear and anxiety often carries over to life off of the mat. 

As a cancer survivor, you may have special limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, so find yoga teachers who have experience training cancer patients.  Many hospitals have integrative medicine centers that offer yoga classes and many community centers and studios offer classes for those who have had a cancer diagnosis. There are yoga retreats for cancer survivors all over the U.S.  These classes and retreats can be a great alternative to a support group, providing a chance to connect with others who understand what you have been through in a positive and nonjudgmental setting.  

You can also practice yoga at home, although I recommend that you learn proper postures from an instructor first.  There are many online videos, such as this class from , which make yoga more accessible if you have transportation or financial concerns.

Yoga is a great way to help a significant other, caregiver or family member cope with the stress of a cancer diagnosis too.  Practicing together can be a meaningful way to connect and strengthen relationships.

Implementing a yoga practice into a self-care routine can instill a sense of calm, connectedness, meaning and overall well being in the face of a cancer diagnosis.  Cancer treatment regimens target specific areas of the body, but side effects are systemic- compromising other parts of the  body; mind and spirit included.  Yoga is a gentle means to fill the often missing void in treatment, empowering you to participate in your own healing.  If you are interested in learning more, I recommend: Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors

Note: It is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider before implementing a yoga practice, particularly if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment.  Those with high blood pressure and glaucoma should also consult with a healthcare provider as certain postures should be avoided. 

This post was originally written by Kara Mosesso for: