You’ve gotten a diagnosis that’s particularly hard to hear: cancer. Facing cancer can be stressful and painful, but practicing yoga can help usher in a sense of calm and strength.
If you’ve had cancer in the past or have it now, consider making yoga a part of your life—with clearance from your healthcare provider, of course.
UNC Health exercise physiologists Karla Dierks, MA, and Gabrielle Brennan, MS, break down the benefits of yoga for cancer survivors. (The American Cancer Society uses the term cancer survivor to refer to anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer, no matter where they are in the course of their disease.)
1. Yoga lowers stress and eases symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Research shows that practicing yoga can lower levels of your body’s stress hormone, cortisol.
“As you stretch your muscles, you invite more oxygen and blood flow to different areas of the body, which helps lower cortisol levels,” Dierks says. “Studies have shown that high cortisol levels are linked to poorer survival rates in women with breast cancer.”
Yoga is a mind-body practice, which the National Cancer Institute defines as a health practice that combines mental focus, controlled breathing, and body movements to help relax the body and mind.
“Yoga helps you focus on and control your breath, which is centering,” Brennan says. “It becomes more than an exercise—it can actually be a form of cognitive therapy that helps lower anxiety and depression and improves overall quality of life.”
2. Yoga combats fatigue and boosts energy levels.
Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Practicing yoga can help cancer survivors feel more energetic, Dierks says.
One study showed “fatigue to be 57 percent lower in survivors who did yoga versus those who didn’t,” Dierks says. “Fatigue affects mood tremendously because if we don’t have the energy to do things we would normally do, it affects everything. Many cancer survivors are young, and they need to be able to move and stay healthy.”
3. Yoga improves immune system function.
Practicing yoga can improve your immune system because it helps keep lymph moving through the body. Lymph is clear fluid that contains white blood cells; think of it as your body’s way of taking out the trash, Dierks says.
“If you’re doing chemotherapy and radiation and your energy is low, it’s important to keep the lymph moving to keep moving the dead cancer cells through the body,” Dierks says. “This helps the body detoxify and maintain optimal immune system function.”
For breast cancer survivors healing from surgery, yoga can help counter postural issues such as hunching or tightening of the upper body, Dierks says.
“Many poses are meant to help bring healing to specific parts of the body,” Dierks says. “There is science behind yoga; every pose is linked to different organs and lymphatic systems.”
Yoga also can help with edema, a buildup of fluid in the body’s tissues caused by certain cancers and cancer treatments.
4. Yoga relieves pain.
The gentle movements of yoga can help alleviate pain.
“Exercise, no matter how hard or simple, releases endorphins, or feel-good chemicals,” Dierks says. “Endorphins are tied to our pain receptors, which are like on-off switches in the body. If you flood the body with endorphins, you can crowd out the pain.”
Enhanced connection with your body can also make you less injury-prone, preventing future pain, Dierks adds.
5. Yoga increases mindfulness and mental focus.
Yoga encourages a sense of unity of mind, body and spirit, Dierks says. It helps you slow down and become more in tune with your body.
“Yoga’s deep breathing causes you to listen to your body and improves mental focus,” Dierks says. “You can think ‘what is my body saying and what does it want?’ Oftentimes, we’re just muscling through our day and our to-do list. Yoga can help you find yourself in your body.”
This body awareness can help you take better care of yourself.
“The philosophy of yoga and connecting with your body can help you feel less of a need to heal on other people’s timelines,” Dierks says. “Cancer takes a long time to heal from and our world can make you feel guilty for not being well yet because we’re so focused on productivity. Yoga can help you live a more gentle life.”
6. Yoga improves sleep.
Studies have shown that anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of cancer survivors have impaired sleep quality after treatment, Brennan says.
“Yoga may help increase your sleep duration and give you better quality sleep, increasing your overall quality of life. Better sleep improves your daily function and increases your immune system response.”
7. Yoga may slow progression of cancer.
Cancer is an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells that spreads through the body, Brennan says. Tumorigenesis, or the progression of cancer, is the constant replication of the abnormal genes to create a tumor.
“Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, contributes to tumor invasion and metastasis. Yoga can help keep tumors at bay by increasing the amount of oxygen in your body,” she says. “Exercise also increases blood flow to tumors, which is important because tumors with little to no blood flow can become more aggressive and resistant to treatment.”
8. Yoga improves flexibility and balance.
Maintaining balance can be a struggle for many cancer survivors, but practicing yoga can help.
“Yoga helps increase your balance, which will decrease your risk of falling,” Brennan says. “Moving slowly through the motions helps you develop core strength and will also help increase coordination and flexibility.”
9. Yoga can help build community.
Practicing yoga in a group setting can be a good way to build community to support you on your journey with cancer.
“By the nature of yoga and traditions it comes from, a yoga class is typically a nonjudgmental environment,” Dierks says. “It’s likely that you could go to a class and find a community of people to support you. You can also simply attend the class and focus on your own mind-body connection.”
How a Cancer Survivor Can Start Practicing Yoga
If you’re beginning a yoga practice, start slow and take it a step at a time, Brennan says.
“Start off in a basic class and make sure you let the instructor know you are a cancer survivor so they can show you modifications, if necessary,” Brennan says.
When searching yoga offerings near you, consider restorative or yin yoga in addition to vinyasa, Dierks says. Ask your studio if they have instructors with special training for cancer patients.
If you don’t feel comfortable attending a class, there are many resources online to help you get started at home. Some of them are free.
“There are beautiful things you can do at home by finding a yoga flow online, taking a yoga class on Zoom, or you could download an app that will help you practice mindfulness,” Dierks says. “If you have your mind set on it, you’re going to be successful.”
Thinking of trying yoga? Check with your doctor first, or find one near you.