5 Ways Yoga Can Support Cancer Patients

Happy active middle-aged woman in sportswear practicing yoga meditation.

Article At A Glance

Is yoga for cancer patients a viable treatment option? There have been numerous small-scale studies which show that people with a cancer diagnosis who practice yoga have better outcomes both in improved quality of life and better survival rates. A recent white paper which collated information from many research papers states “…the studies summarized here suggest yoga can not only help adult cancer patients and survivors manage symptoms and side effects, but also help them lead longer, healthier lives.” (1) Here are five ways yoga practice can support cancer patients.

During a workshop for yoga teachers that I ran earlier this year, we had a great discussion about whether yoga can be a cancer treatment in itself and not just simply a way to ease the side effects of medical interventions. Is yoga for cancer patients a viable supplementary protocol?

In the first instance, there are legal precautions we need to take. As therapists and teachers, we are instructed never to claim to cure, heal, or treat cancer, as this is something only medical professionals are allowed to claim. The 1939 Cancer Act also placed a blanket ban on all advertising of any cancer treatments to the public.

We also need to have moral caution. People with cancer and their families are considered vulnerable individuals. They are often under tremendous stress and may be fearful for their lives. We need to ensure that we don’t give false or exaggerated hope and have good evidence to back any claims we make.

Cancer Causes Aren’t Easy to Predict

My personal belief is that the causes of cancer are not yet fully understood, especially on an individual case-by-case basis. There can be genetic causes (inherited susceptibility), environmental causes (exposure to carcinogens), lifestyle causes (e.g., smoking), and mental and emotional causes or triggers (such as stress or trauma). Apart from a few cases, we cannot say why an individual has gotten the cancer they have. It’s, therefore, tough to determine the best and most effective treatment plan to reverse what caused it in the first place and prevent recurrence.

For example, you probably know someone who led a pretty healthy lifestyle and got cancer anyway, and maybe you know someone who smoked all their life and didn’t get it. Even when there is a knowable factor, such as a genetic disposition or exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, it doesn’t mean that everyone in that situation will develop cancer. We don’t know why some people do and some don’t. Hopefully, one day, we will.

How Helpful Can Yoga for Cancer Patients Be?

Woman in yoga pose indoors. Concept of yoga and wellness and concept of yoga as a complimentary treatment for cancer.

There have been numerous small-scale studies that show that people with a cancer diagnosis who practice yoga have better outcomes both in improved quality of life and better survival rates. A recent white paper that collated information from many research papers states, “…the studies summarized here suggest yoga can not only help adult cancer patients and survivors manage symptoms and side effects but also help them lead longer, healthier lives.” (1)

An analysis of several randomized controlled clinical studies into the effects of yoga on cancer patients also showed that “Several symptoms improved substantially with yoga (higher quality of sleep, decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression, improvement in spiritual well-being…)”. (2)

5 Ways Yoga Can Support Cancer Patients

  1. Oxygen Can Kill Cancer Cells

    There is now oxygen therapy for some cancer patients. So moderate exercise that oxygenates the body will help get oxygen to cancer cells. Several studies show that cancer patients who exercise regularly have better long-term survival and reduced recurrence. (3)

  2. Regular Exercise Helps the Body Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar Levels

    Group Of Mature Female Friends On Outdoor Yoga Retreat Walking Along Path Through Campsite. Concept of yoga as a healing modality for cancer and other health problems.

    This reduces insulin and the inflammatory response. Insulin is a growth factor that stimulates cell division, promoting the development and spread of tumors. Interestingly, metformin, a diabetes drug developed to lower insulin levels, is now being researched as a potential cancer treatment. Yoga can also be part of a weight management program for some cancer patients, as obesity can be an aggravating factor in some cases.

  3. Reducing Stress Restores Healing and Immune Function

    Yoga has long been recognized as an antidote to a stressful, adrenaline-fuelled life. There has been much research on the effects of stress on the body and how persistent long-term stress leads to poor body functions and eventual illness. The body diverts resources for short-term survival when we are under stress, known as fight-or-flight mode. Suppose we can reduce stress and induce the rest-and-repair mode. In that case, we allow the body to allocate resources to long-term survival, which includes immunity, cell repair, digestion, sleep, and reproduction.

    Meditation support physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

  4. Yoga Can Help Cancer Patients Cope with Side-Effects of Treatment

    From the outset, it has been clear that medical cancer treatment is tough on the body. Some people have been unable to have the optimum therapies, as their bodies cannot cope with it. Some patients have died from the treatment rather than the cancer itself. (4)

    Through regular yoga practice, patients can improve their underlying health, mobility, and strength to help them physically cope with the treatment. Very simple things can make a huge difference. If patients can sleep, eat, and exercise, they can maintain muscle mass, get sufficient nutrition to support the body, improve their energy, and increase their strength.

  5. Mental and Emotional Strength Improves Quality of Life and Promotes Better Outcomes

    Yoga and Meditation as complimentary treatment for many illnesses including cancer.

    As teachers, we know yoga is far more than asana! When we consider the koshas, or “sheaths” as they are sometimes called, yoga works on human beings’ physical, energetic, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Patients have often told me that it is the mental, emotional, and sometimes spiritual aspects that have been most important in their treatment recovery.

    It is easy to see how poor mental health can lead to a downward spiral of poor physical health, especially under the strain of cancer treatments. Severe stress, anxiety, and panic can lead to poor quality sleep, lack of appetite, increased tension and pain, and poor breathing techniques, which all undermine health.

    By teaching people breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation, we not only help to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety but also empower people to do something positive for themselves. It gives them back a sense of agency and control in situations where they could feel powerless.

Yoga for Cancer Patients Promotes Well-being

Breast cancer mother and pretty daughter sitting on couch practicing yoga meditation.

So, there is a lot that yoga can do for cancer patients! I wouldn’t say it is a stand-alone treatment for cancer, but I do think it could be considered as part of a complex treatment package. As more research is done and recognition of the value of yoga increases in the medical community, I hope that it will become a part of the prescription for cancer treatment. My theory, as yet unproven, is that therapeutic yoga for all cancer patients would not only improve survival statistics but would reduce the cost of both supplementary drugs and therapy for the side effects of cancer treatment and reduce recurrence. We shall wait and see what unfolds!

In the meantime, as yoga teachers, we can continue to offer support to people with cancer, knowing that we are helping them cope with their treatment, improving their quality of life, and empowering them to take back some control of their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Reprinted with permission from yogaforcanceracademy.org

Jenni is a professional yoga teacher and reflexologist, qualifying with the Central London School of reflexology in 2001 with Michael and Louise Keet and with British Wheel of Yoga in 2007. In the years since she has continued to gain additional training including an oncology diploma with the Middlesex School of Complementary Medicine. 

Jenni spent 2 years working in the North London Hospice and then several years at the Cancerkin breast cancer charity offering reflexology and yoga classes.  She currently runs the yoga for cancer classes at Maggie’s Royal Free, where she has been teaching for the last 8 years, and has a private practise offering both reflexology and one-to-one yoga to with people with cancer.


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