Hatha Yoga Shown to Improve Quality of Life for Breast Cancer Survivors

Hatha yoga could be a useful therapy to improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors, according to a pilot study conducted at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine. Many other studies have been conducted on the use of yoga for breast cancer patients, but this was the first that tested yoga’s effects on survivors of breast cancer.

The pilot study followed 25 female breast cancer survivors taking a six-week yoga class. Quality of life—including physical, social, emotional, and social factors—was determined by questionnaires filled out before, during, and six weeks after the yoga course. The women with the lowest emotional and functional scores before the study showed the greatest improvement in those areas, while the women starting with the highest physical scores showed the most improvement in that area. Social well-being scores did not change.  

Based on the pilot study findings, the researchers concluded that yoga may be a clinically useful tool for helping breast cancer survivors improve their quality of life.

Another study published in 2012 surveyed all the randomized trials of yoga for cancer patients and analyzed the results. Of the sixteen studies that met their strict scientific criteria, one included patients with lymphomas, and the other fifteen studied breast cancer patients. The researchers surveying these studies found that yoga reduced distress, anxiety, depression, and some fatigue, and also contributed to increases in general quality of life, emotional function, and social function, as well as a small increase in well-being. They concluded that use of yoga for breast cancer patients would be feasible and could have beneficial effects on psycho-social symptoms.

In another randomized trial, 63 post-treatment overweight breast cancer patients were divided into two groups and tested for fatigue, quality of life, and weight change. One group was given Viniyoga™ courses, and the other group served as the control. In the yoga group, Viniyoga was practiced five times a week for six months. The yoga group experienced more improvement in quality of life and fatigue than the control group, though the difference was not statistically significant. The yoga group did experience a reduction in waistline measurements, but it was without weight loss. The researchers concluded that more research is needed.

In an article on the Cancer Network, integrative oncology doctor Judith Fouladbakhsh, Ph.D., PHCNS-BC, AHN-BC, CHTP, quoted National Health Interview Surveys, saying that in 2011, more than 800,000 cancer survivors were trying yoga. Why does yoga work for these survivors? Dr. Fouladbakhsh summed up the research by saying that yoga influences the central nervous system, toning down the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal complex and the sympathetic nervous system to reduce stress responses.

She also referenced research showing that yoga decreases inflammation markers, heart rate, and blood pressure, while increasing heart rate variability, levels of serum IgA, natural killer cells, and GABA (a neurotransmitter needed for relaxation).

Fouladbakhsh went on to say that while studies are showing that the benefits are enough to warrant nurses and doctors suggesting yoga practice to their patients, more studies are needed now.

Differences in length of time practicing yoga, types of practice, specific postures, training, and certification of teachers make it difficult to determine a scientific dosage that would standardize treatment in a way recognizable to doctors and insurance companies. The scientific surveys of cancer studies have also mentioned the same difficulty. Further studies are called for with strong methodological designs, larger sample sizes, and adequate controls.

For more in yoga for cancer, seeYogaU’s online course with y4c founder Tari Prinster: Introduction to Yoga for Cancer.

Pilot study of yoga for breast cancer survivors with poor quality of life, Levine AS, et.al. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

INTEGRATIVE ONCOLOGY, Yoga, by Judith M. Fouladbakhsh, PhD, APRN, BC, AHN-BC, CHTPN1  February 16, 2011

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