According to the American Cancer Society, yoga is a form of non-aerobic exercise that involves a program of precise posture, breathing exercises, and meditation. In ancient Sanskrit, the word yoga means “union.” Yoga has proven to be beneficial for many cancer patients as it promotes relaxation and can often kick-start a fitness regimen. Although yoga cannot treat the disease, it can improve quality of life for cancer patients by helping patients manage some of the side effects of treatment, including depression, insomnia, pain and fatigue. It can also help with emotional and mental aspects of treatment such as managing anxiety.
Toward this end, in 2012, Fox Chase Cancer Center initiated a chair-based yoga course for cancer patients in the Women’s Cancer Center. As a certified yoga instructor who specializes in gentle yoga for cancer patients, I was hired to teach this specialized class.
People who have not participated in a yoga class are often intimidated by the difficult poses that some people master. While some yoga classes are physically challenging, there are many classes for beginners and for people with physical challenges.
The methodology behind my class, “Gentle Yoga Therapy for Cancer Patients” emphasizes the stress reduction aspects of yoga and is tailored to the needs and abilities of each patient. Gentle movement, breathing techniques, meditation, deep relaxation and imagery work to help guide patients to an energized yet calm state of peaceful awareness. As fatigue is the number one side effect of cancer treatment, patients spend approximately 60 to 75 percent of class time in chairs, with some choosing to remain in the chair for the entire class.
Joe Stevenson was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in 2010 when he was 39 years old. His treatment has included a combination of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Joe and his wife, Linette, joined my class in the fall of 2012. “For us, this class is extremely helpful,” shared Joe, who noted each movement is modified to accommodate the limitations of each patient. “I have limitations with my left shoulder due to surgical treatment. Michelle works with me so I can get the benefit of yoga without further injury to my shoulder.”
Caregivers also feel the stress of cancer treatment as much of the household and family responsibility fall to them. Joe and Linette, who are raising two teenage daughters, have enjoyed this time together. “I am fortunate to be able to accompany Joe to all of his appointments,” explained Linette, who has benefited from the class as well. “Yoga is a good extension to the treatment offered at Fox Chase. We’re hoping it will kick-start our road to good health,” she adds.
Over the years, we have learned that meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a term coined by researcher Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School to describe a phenomenon in which the following physiological changes take place:
- Metabolism decreases
- Heart rate lowers
- Muscles tension is reduced
- Breath rate slows
- Blood pressure decreases
- Chemicals associated with stress, cortisol and adrenalin, are reduced
When patients know these benefits of yoga, they are inspired to practice more frequently. These yoga techniques affect the body by quieting down the sympathetic nervous system and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” process of the limbic brain. It sends adrenalin and cortisol through the body, which in turn sends blood to the extremities – arms and legs – leaving the organs at the core of the body functioning with less blood and interfering with their efficient functioning. In this situation the digestive and reproductive systems are suppressed and the immune system altered.
The parasympathetic nervous system tells the body that everything is okay, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the organs so they can operate efficiently. If stress is prolonged and the body is continuously exposed to the stress hormones, one becomes at risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems and depression.
For more information or to register for the next class, please contact Mary Ann Costello, Fox Chase Cancer Center Stress Management Program, Department of Psychiatry, at 215-214-3940.