Yoga offers new weapon against cancer treatment stress

WASHINGTON — Women battling breast cancer have a new weapon: A form of exercise for the body and mind that has been around for centuries.

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center say yoga offers unique benefits to women undergoing radiation therapy.

They studied 191 women with breast cancer and split them into three groups: Those who practiced yoga; those who practiced simple stretching; and those who did neither.

Women in the yoga and stretching groups both reported a drop in fatigue during their six-week course of radiation therapy. But the researchers say those practicing yoga also experienced better health, less stress and an improved outlook on life.

Master yoga instructor and author Jill Abelson says she was not surprised by the study results, which were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“My impression is that yoga really helped them stay physically and mentally strong through their treatments,” says Abelson, who teaches in D.C. and San Francisco and has taught women with breast cancer.

She says yoga’s emphasis on conscious breathing and conscious movement provides benefits that other forms of exercise do not. There is also a meditative aspect to yoga that renders it much more effective in helping a body under stress than simple stretching.

There are many forms of yoga, and Abelson says a woman with breast cancer should seek guidance from her doctor on the best choice. But the veteran yoga instructor says a gentle-to-moderate form would probably be the most beneficial. She says hot yoga should be avoided because of the incredible demands it places on the body.

Abelson says people with other illnesses can also gain from the stress-reducing aspects of yoga, which have been proven to lower levels of cortisol, which is what creates the “fight or flight” response to stress and helps people draw on emergency energy when under pressure.

But too much cortisol is not a good thing.

“It actually starts to weaken our body’s ability to heal itself over time.”

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