Why Some Cancer Centers Offer Yoga to Their Patients

PHOTO: Amie facing the children as they start to go into upward facing dog.Courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
Amie facing the children as they start to go into upward facing dog.

A new hospital program dispenses downward dogs and tree poses to help kids with aggressive forms of cancer deal with their illnesses.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center’s integrative medicine department hopes to show that yoga can help cancer patients of all ages cope with the stress and symptoms of their disease.

Each week, Amie Koronczok, one of three mind-body intervention specialists at the center, takes pediatric cancer patients between 3 and 12 years of age through a 45-minute yoga class that often incorporates art, music and storytelling.

PHOTO: Amie Koronczok leads little yoga class in the pedidome.Courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
Amie Koronczok leads little yoga class in the pedidome.

“We focus on relaxation, mindful meditation and breathing,” she said, adding that the class was developed at the request of parents looking for some help with the emotional side of their children's illnesses.

Though the kids class is relatively new, the center has been holding yoga classes for adults for more than 13 years.

PHOTO: The children get ready to begin class.Courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
The children get ready to begin class.

No studies suggest that yoga will cure or prevent cancer. It might not be of use for every patient, either. But a growing body of evidence indicates regular yoga practice might help manage the emotional turmoil that often accompanies a physical diagnosis.

A recent review of 10 studies, for example, indicated that yoga might help to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress for some patients. Trials included in the review associated meditative yoga with improvements in sleep quality and a boost in patient mood and well-being.

The authors of the review, published in the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, stressed that there needs to be more research to prove definitively the usefulness of yoga in cancer care and recovery. However, Koronczok said she’s already seen its positive effects on her littlest patients, including a little boy who came into class reluctantly and didn’t appear to pay much attention throughout.

“I saw him a few weeks later when he didn’t feel good and it hurt to move, and he asked me if the sparkling meditation globe we used during class could help him stay calm,” she recalled. “That impressed me because I thought he was resistant to the things we were doing, but it turned out he listened and got something out of it.”

PHOTO: Amie has the children open and close the ball while having them take slow, deep breaths.Courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
Amie has the children open and close the ball while having them take slow, deep breaths.

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“There is no downside to teaching cancer patients yoga,” said Cindy Finch, a psychological therapist and social worker with Reimagine, an online resource for cancer survivors.

Finch, who is also a cancer survivor, said she believed that health care need not treat patients exclusively with medications, surgery and other therapies that address only the physical side of illness. Treating the whole person, including the mind and spirit, helps the whole person recover, she said.

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