How Yoga Can Help Women with Breast Cancer

Yoga can help ease pain, fatigue and depression in women battling breast cancer, a new study found. (Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

By Danielle Krol, M.D. (@dailydosemd)

Yoga can help ease pain, fatigue and depression among women battling breast cancer, a new study found. It might even help them survive.

The study of 191 breast cancer patients linked yoga to improvements in self-reported quality of life, including measures of mood, pain and fatigue. Practicing yoga also appeared to help regulate the stress hormone cortisol, which is tied to poor survival among breast cancer patients.

"The benefits of yoga are above and beyond stretching," said Lorenzo Cohen, a professor of oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and lead author of the study published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. "These findings may improve outcomes in cancer survivors."

To conduct the study, Cohen and his team randomly assigned 191 women with breast cancer who were undergoing radiation therapy into one of three groups. One group did yoga, another did simple stretching exercises, and a third group did neither. The participants in the yoga and stretching groups attended sessions for one hour, three days a week throughout the six weeks of their radiation therapy.

Throughout the study, Cohen's team asked patients a series of questions assessing their quality of life, fatigue level and sleep quality, and tested their cortisol levels. By comparing the groups, they found yoga significantly reduced fatigue, raised physical function and health perception scores and reduced cortisol levels.

Dr. Barrie Cassileth, chief of the integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said the new findings lend additional weight to the science behind mind-body approaches to cancer treatment.

"Yoga is a very important intervention, and this was a high quality investigation," said Cassileth, who was not involved with the study. "This study looked beyond the physical benefits of yoga by looking at the physiologic measure of stress: cortisol."

The new research is part of an ongoing effort by researchers at M.D. Anderson to scientifically corroborate mind-body interventions in cancer care. The study was done in collaboration with Swami Vivekananda Anusandhana Samsthana, India's largest yoga research institution.

Breast Cancer is the most common cancer among women, with an estimated 232,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Doctor's Take

Integrative medicine, a philosophy that explores new ways to treat the mind, body and spirit, is increasingly popular among physicians. Now research is starting to provide concrete evidence on the benefits of yoga, especially in the cancer setting.

A practice that began over 5,000 years ago, yoga has only recently begun to be integrated into medical therapy at cancer centers across the country. And while its original focus may have been wellness and emotional health, studies like this, which look at physical measures like cortisol levels, suggest that yoga's effects may extend beyond what many doctors once believed.

The study adds to mounting evidence that yoga can be used to control physical functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism and body temperature. And for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, it might be one more reason to look to this ancient practice for improved quality of life and possibly a better chance of beating their disease.