In the chemotherapy infusion room at the Staten Island University Hospital sit several cancer patients hooked up to IVs. But they aren't leafing through magazines or staring at a talk show and worrying about their health.
Instead, their right legs are lifted up in the air, and they're circling their ankles clockwise while breathing deeply under the instruction of their yoga teacher.
"Most people don't look forward to chemotherapy," said Kerry Gillespie, director of the hospital's Center for Complementary Medicine. But he said the patients in this program look forward to the yoga class they take during their chemotherapy infusions every Thursday. Among other benefits, Gillespie said, "It gets their mind off the chemo."
Yoga is an ancient tradition involving meditation, deep breathing and movement through physical postures, and a growing body of literature suggests that it can be beneficial for multiple serious and chronic health conditions.
And now, new research released Thursday ahead of the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting suggests yoga has beneficial effects on sleep quality, fatigue, and overall quality of life in cancer survivors.
Darlene Distler, 54, of Lafayette, N.Y., is a cancer survivor. She was just one of the participants in a University of Rochester study who said yoga helped her deal with the fatigue and insomnia she experienced from her treatment.
"I just loved it," she said. "This really, really helped. ... Several of us would fall asleep in class. It was that relaxing."
For Distler, the benefits were lasting. She said she still sometimes has problems with sleep, "but I will just do the breathing techniques when I wake up in the middle of the night, concentrate on my breathing, and it helps me get back to sleep. It's an empowering tool, something you can do that isn't harmful to your body."
The new study, funded by the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, was carried out in nine different community sites around the country.
"To my knowledge, this is the largest clinical trial using yoga intervention in cancer survivors [to date]," said lead study author Karen Mustian, an exercise psychologist and physiologist at the University of Rochester.
Sleep disturbances and fatigue are an enormously burdensome problem among cancer survivors; 30 to 50 percent of newly diagnosed or recently treated cancer patients have trouble sleeping, and 70 to 96 percent of recently treated cancer patients complain of fatigue. The reasons for this aren't clear. Experts cite psychosocial factors as well as physical ones.
In the trial, 410 patients who had completed cancer therapy were split into two groups: one that participated in a four-week-long, twice-weekly yoga program, and one that did not.
Compared to how they felt beforehand, the survivors who participated in the yoga program afterward reported improvements in sleep quality and fatigue. Yoga participants also used less sleep medication than they did before the program, while non-yoga participants actually increased their use of sleep medication.
Mustian said patients were enthusiastic about the classes, and 86 percent attended more than half the sessions.
Experts not directly involved with the research called the study important.