How Yoga Can Help and Support Women with Breast Cancer
Here at Myga, we feel incredibly passionate about the benefits of Yoga on Breast Cancer. We developed Yoga Mats with a guide printed on the mat detailing how to safely and accurately check your body for signs of Breast Cancer. As women, it’s something that 1 in 8 of us will be diagnosed with during our lifetime, the most common type of cancer in the UK. There is a good chance of recovery if it is detected at an early stage.
Which is why it’s so important for women to check their breasts regularly. Know your body and if there are any changes, always visit your GP to raise your concerns. The NHS website states that there are benefits for women who maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly (it is suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by almost as much as a third), have a low intake of saturated fat and don’t drink alcohol.
We know that yoga can help to improve your general wellbeing, reduce fatigue, reduce pain and discomfort in joints and muscles, lower stress and reduce anxiety...to name but a few benefits. This is why yoga is ideal for women who are going through treatment or are in remission. There are a lot of research studies that suggest there are real benefits having a regular yoga practice after a breast cancer diagnosis, particularly for emotional wellbeing, cancer-related fatigue and pain.
A study was conducted by the University of Rochester in New York, involving 321 patients, the majority of whom had breast cancer. Half of the participants practiced yoga for 75 minutes, twice a week and the remainder carried on with the normal lifestyles. After four weeks, the women who did yoga were sleeping better and had significantly lower levels of fatigue. Researchers found patients who practiced yoga slept less but had less fatigue, in large part because they cut down on daytime napping. The result was a 37% reduction in “daytime dysfunction”, the study’s most dramatic finding.
Another trial by the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, India, looked at whether yoga can improve breast cancer patients' survival odds. It involved 850 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, with half of them doing yoga every day. The first results showed yoga significantly reduced their pain and tiredness and helped them go about their daily lives. Women doing yoga also reported being in a better mood and being more active.
After a year and a half of follow-up, researchers found patients who practiced both yoga and exercise were nearly twice as likely to report improved mood, 34% versus 66%, and had less trouble with general activities, 41% versus 59%. The principal investigator said scientists believed that a reduction in cortisol, sometimes called a ‘stress hormone’, could account for the improved wellbeing among patients. This study remains undergoing, with positive results being recorded regularly.
“Yoga works on the principle of mind and body health and it would help women cope with systemic therapy side effects better,” said Nita Nair, an associate professor of surgical oncology at Tata Memorial Centre. “Yoga Nidra and pranayama also improve sleep patterns. Thus, all this together may reduce fatigue and pain.”
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said, 'This intriguing research suggests that yoga could help alleviate some of the very difficult side effects following breast cancer treatment, such as pain, fatigue and sleep deprivation. These side effects can have a hugely detrimental impact on patients' quality of life and yoga is a low risk, widely available activity that could help women manage and overcome them.’
Breast cancer patients in Lincolnshire ran a yoga pilot programme in 2017, organised by United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust. The free sessions provided support and relaxation for ladies undergoing breast cancer treatment or who have previously had treatment, focusing on overall wellbeing and provided patients with practical techniques to help self-manage some of the effects of breast cancer and treatment. Nicky Turner, Macmillan breast care nurse specialist said, “Research has proven that yoga for cancer patients is very beneficial both physically and mentally. It’s a great way for patients to manage part of their treatment and look after their wellbeing and provides independence within their care.
When yoga crops up in conversation, we often picture someone in a tree pose, eyes closed, palms pressed together and chanting Om! But remember, yoga isn’t just about the physical poses. Often, the wider practice of yoga is overlooked with too much focus on the physical postures. The breathwork, meditation, mindfulness, yoga Nidra, sound baths and other types of yoga such as Yin or restorative, are often not acknowledged as widely in the media, but it is often where the most powerful results come from.
These practices can bring some comfort in the form of relieving stress, by turning down the volume of the relentless mind chatter, easing out tension and bringing relief to the mind and body. Think of yoga as a toolkit and you pick out the bits you need depending on how you are feeling on any given day.
I spoke to two of my fabulous friends about their experiences of yoga and how it helped them during their breast cancer journeys. Both have been to my classes, retreats and workshops and both have different takes on how yoga has helped them.
Tracey Durrant was diagnosed 10 years ago and had reconstructive surgery. Tracey attended some of my first ever yoga classes when I was a newly qualified teacher, but the poses were uncomfortable and on occasion painful due to having very little movement in her upper back and shoulder due to the muscles used for her reconstruction. The surgery had left her managing pain in this area and trying yoga, something that we both thought would help her, made the pain worse. Fast forward four years and I’d done extensive training in Yin yoga and began to run Yin yoga and relaxation workshops.
She said, “I avoid doing things that make me uncomfortable in that area of my body or hurt me. Yin yoga worked well for me. I didn’t have to do any downward dogs or pressing on my arms because that would hurt the muscles. I was lying down for most of it, it was much slower, and the relaxation element was really beneficial, both physically and helped to reduce anxiety. Yin yoga is good for mind and soul.”
Sarah Parry had been attending my yoga classes pre-diagnosis. She says, “Before I was diagnosed, I was the fittest I’d been for a long time, I was training at the gym and doing yoga. My doctor told me that it had definitely helped me in my recovery that I’d been fit at the point of diagnosis and it made me feel I was in strong position before I had any of the operations or treatment. It was April 2018 and for f**** sake, I was the fittest I’d been for ages and now I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer! But I was glad that it meant I was starting my treatment from the best possible position.”
“After my mastectomy, I carried on with some of the mindfulness techniques and used the Headspace app as there was a special package for people with cancer. I’d created a space in my bedroom where all my yoga stuff was – the sprays, lavender eye pillow and blankets, and I’d settle in and either listen to Headspace or do my breathing exercises. In July 2019 I went on your yoga retreat, and I was concerned I wouldn't’t be able to do a lot of the yoga. I’d always felt a bit self- conscious when doing yoga anyway, and now it was, ‘what do I wear and will my ‘chicken fillet’ prosthetic fall out?’. So, I wore baggy stuff rather than tight tops. Doing the yoga sessions, the scar tissue under my arm due to the lymph node removal was restricting my movement. It feels like a cluster of nettle stings that has made your arm numb, and it still feels like that. Once you’ve had an operation somewhere you are always quite tentative of that area. I’d been quite strong but after the operations I lost the strength so doing a downward dog became difficult as I couldn't put the pressure on that arm. But because you gave options, I could always do something. Over the week, the sun, yoga, and swimming really improved the range of motion in my arm and shoulder, and that was with not doing ALL the physical movements.”
- Find a class that will work for you. Speak to the teacher beforehand. Explain your concerns / issues about hands on adjustments, scar discomfort and anything else that you may be holding you back. If possible, find a specific class for women with breast cancer.
- Also remember to tell the teacher about any other previous issues you had such as issues with your back, neck or hips or any other condition you were managing. These issues may have actually become worse during your treatment.
- If you are feeling self-conscious about your body, wear baggy clothes. If this isn’t going to work, join an online class first with the camera switched off. There are some great live online classes on offer out there and geography is no longer an issue thanks to technology.
- Book an in-person 1-2-1 yoga session. This means that the session will be designed specifically for you and your needs.
- Try different types of yoga. Yin or restorative yoga might suit you and your body during certain times of treatment or post-op.
- Download a meditation or relaxation app. Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer are just three which are brilliant and also have free content.
We hope this blog has been informative and insightful into the link between Yoga and Breast Cancer. Check out our range of Breast Cancer Yoga mats to take part in Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each design is unique, and each mat has a guide on how to know your boobs and detect early signs of Breast Cancer. We sell a variety of products designed to assist in finding an inner sense of calm. Help us spread the word about Breast Cancer and Yoga.
Claudia Brown | Yoga by Claudia | Yoga Teacher and Om Yoga Magazine Contributor | Instagram – YogabyClaudia