For women with breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy, yoga offers unique benefits beyond fighting fatigue, researchers said. The study by Lorenzo Cohen, from University of Texas M D Anderson Cancer Center is part of an effort to scientifically validate mind-body interventions in cancer patients.
Researchers found that while simple stretching exercises counteracted fatigue, patients who participated in yoga exercises that incorporated controlled breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques into their treatment plan experienced improved ability to engage in their daily activities, better general health and better regulation of cortisol (stress hormone).
Women in the yoga group were also better equipped to find meaning in the illness experience, which declined over time for the women in the other two groups. The study also assessed, for the first time, yoga benefits in cancer patients by comparing their experience with patients in an active control group who integrated simple, generic stretching exercises into their lives.
“Combining mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical difficulties associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching,” said Cohen.
Participants in the yoga and stretching groups attended sessions specifically tailored to breast cancer patients for one-hour, three days a week throughout their six weeks of radiation treatment. They were asked to report on their quality of life, including levels of fatigue and depression, their daily functioning and a measure assessing ability to find meaning in the illness experience.
Saliva samples were collected and electrocardiogram tests were administered. Women who practiced yoga had the steepest decline in their cortisol levels across the day, indicating that yoga had the ability to help regulate this stress hormone.
Higher stress hormone levels throughout the day, known as a blunted circadian cortisol rhythm, have been linked to worse outcomes in breast cancer, researchers said. After completing radiation treatment only the women in the yoga and stretching groups reported a reduction in fatigue, they said.
At one, three and six months after radiation therapy, women who practiced yoga during the treatment period reported greater benefits to physical functioning and general health. They were more likely to find life meaning from their cancer experience than the other groups.