By the end of 2017, it’s estimated there will be a total of 1,688,780 new cancer cases in the United States. Every day, thousands upon thousands of people wake up in the middle of a fight for their lives, in search of the greatest weapons to use against this enemy. Modern medicine provides most of those weapons, but naturally, any cancer patient wants the biggest arsenal available to make treatment as fast, effective, and comfortable as possible.
In addition to chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, you’re probably eating a healthy diet, building a strong community of support, and maybe seeking massage, acupuncture, or other supplemental treatments to help improve your quality of life as your body heals.
While you’re at it, don’t forget about yoga.
By now, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about the benefits of yoga and meditation. Fun fact: these benefits have little to do with the goats or beer that have lately been paired with the practice. People who make a habit of stepping on the mat (even when no tiny animals or alcoholic beverages are promised) enjoy a wide range of positive effects, including muscular strength and flexibility, increased confidence and focus, improved circulation and joint range of motion, and stress relief.
The beauty of these ancient practices is that they’re available to anyone: tall or short, thick or thin, young or old, healthy or battling an illness: no matter who you are, you can do some yoga. In fact, when it comes to cancer patients, the benefits of yoga and meditation are especially far-reaching.
No matter what stage of the cancer journey you happen to be in, from first diagnosis to remission, these are just a few of the ways you may benefit from yoga and meditation.
Cancer is scary. It does not discriminate and can strike with little warning, even in otherwise healthy people.
For cancer survivors, the fear of the disease returning may prevent them from enjoying their cancer-free lives. They may have trouble sleeping, developing relationships, or setting goals because they’re afraid cancer could come back.
In a recent study, cancer survivors went through an intervention that included mindfulness techniques: participants practiced accepting the uncertainty about cancer, controlling the focus of their attention, and managing their worry. The control group learned relaxation techniques. Both groups showed improvement, but the intervention group decreased their level of fear significantly.
Our daily modern life is stressful enough. Add cancer to the mix, and stress levels go through the roof—which is not helpful in a body that is trying to heal.
Yoga reduces your level of cortisol (the stress hormone), providing stress relief and even reducing your risk of depression. In yoga, you learn to focus on staying in the present moment and managing life on an even keel; as you practice, you may notice you find it easier to cope with situations that used to cause anxiety.
Furthermore, mindfulness practices and emotional support have been shown to help maintain the length of telomeres in breast cancer survivors. (As WebMD explains, “telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes to protect the cell’s DNA from damage.” Telomeres tend to shorten with age and lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol and smoking; scientists are looking into whether or not longer telomeres definitively improve health.)
Manage Pain & Discomfort
This study showed that meditation can reduce the intensity of pain, and that it isn’t necessary to practice for years to get that result: the study participants noticed positive effects after just a few days (though it is likely you’ll notice greater benefits with more practice).
For the cancer patient dealing with discomfort associated with the disease and the treatments, meditation offers an inexpensive, non-invasive way of helping to manage that pain.
Poor sleep not only leaves you feeling groggy and grumpy, it has a negative impact on your immune system. Practicing yoga can help you sleep better, particularly if you choose a gentle style of yoga and poses that encourage rest and relaxation before bed, like legs up the wall and child’s pose.
Accept the Situation
A patient with a new cancer diagnosis might have thoughts like these:
- It isn’t fair.
- I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle; I don’t deserve this.
- I wish I had done something to prevent this.
Yoga teaches us to accept our circumstances, even as we’re trying to change them. This acceptance frees us from the draining feelings of anger and regret.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re “okay” with the disease or that you’re giving up. It simply means you’re not wasting energy wishing things were different. You’re using that energy to make them different. Instead of a mental kicking-and-screaming reaction to the disease, you choose a measured response and act with purpose as you seek to heal.
Regain a Sense of Control
Cancer is one thing no one ever plans on. When it happens, it’s easy to feel like your life is completely out of your hands. You may feel helpless and, sometimes, hopeless.
A dedicated yoga practice, even if it’s just a few minutes per day, is empowering. It teaches you that you still have control over your thoughts and how you approach your healing process.
Where to Begin
Not everyone can do all yoga, but everyone can do some yoga.
Even if you are confined to bed, there are techniques you can practice. Here’s how to get started:
- Speak with your doctor about what type of movement and breathing techniques are appropriate for you. It might not be possible to jump into a vigorous daily yoga practice, but there’s no need to strive for that. You’ll benefit from even a few minutes a few times per week.
- Practice with a certified teacher. When you’re starting a yoga practice, it’s tempting to watch videos from the comfort of your living room, but it’s best to work with a teacher so he or she can give you real-time feedback about how you’re doing. Ideally, find a teacher who has experience working with the unique needs of cancer patients and survivors.
- Find what works for you. If you feel too weak to get on the yoga mat, you should know you can also do yoga in a chair. Most of the breathing techniques can be performed sitting or lying down. While sitting tall is an ideal position for meditation, you can also practice from a lying position (just try not to fall asleep!).
- Try restorative yoga. A restorative yoga practice is restful. Each pose is gentle and supported by bolsters, pillows, and blankets to make it effortless. You set up the pose and rest in it for several minutes to calm and nurture your nervous system; a complete practice might consist of only five or six poses. During the practice, you can focus on your breathing while you observe how your body feels.
- Practice different meditation techniques. There are many ways to meditate, and they are all valid. You could try repeating a mantra (a meaningful word or phrase), focusing on the sound of your breath, or staring at the moon. Consider using a meditation app to help you explore techniques and develop your practice.
- Start slowly. Trying to meditate for an hour probably isn’t going to work for most first-timers. Start with a minute or two and work your way up. If you’re doing physical yoga postures, try 10-15 minutes, or whatever feels good and fits into your schedule.
- Be consistent. The regularity of the practice will help you feel as though you’re taking control of what you can, and of course you’ll notice more benefits with more practice.
Yoga is not a substitute for your doctor’s recommended course of cancer treatment, but it can be an effective way to boost morale and improve your quality of life while you focus on becoming cancer free.