Beating Breast Cancer (Part 2)
*This post is the second in a series about my breast cancer journey. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
As a cancer patient, you quickly discover that each person’s experience is unique. Depending on the diagnosis, stage of cancer development, age, family health history and personal values, treatments vary widely. Even individuals with the same diagnosis may undergo very different surgical procedures and followup treatment.
The same is true of how each individual reacts to being diagnosed. Fear, anxiety, and depression are common, but many women react with strength and determination. Admittedly, I fell into the first group.
Treatments and Side Effects
After the initial biopsy and some additional testing, my doctor recommended a lumpectomy followed by several months of radiation treatment. I was lucky. For women with more aggressive or advanced breast cancer, a combination of radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy are necessary. Unfortunately, many women experience long-term side effects from these treatment, including fatigue, headaches, pain, numbness, bone loss, memory loss and heart problems. This takes an emotional toll, often resulting in stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue and poor sleep. Thankfully, yoga can help with many of these side effects.
Benefits of Yoga for Breast Cancer
Research studies of women with breast cancer show that yoga helps in these five valuable ways:
1- Reduce Stress
The greatest and most consistent benefit of yoga for breast cancer was the reduction in perceived stress. Some studies report a significant decrease in salivary cortisol, a biomarker of stress. Stress depresses the body’s natural immune function, which may be one of the reasons that there is evidence that people who practice yoga for cancer have greater recovery rates.
2- Reduce Depression and Anxiety
Several investigations tested the link between yoga therapy and depression and found a consistently strong correlation between participating in a yoga program and fewer depressive symptoms among breast cancer patients. This supports the premise that yoga may be of benefit before, during, and after cancer treatment in helping to alleviate depressed mood.
3- Improve Sleep Quality and Reduce Fatigue
Insomnia is a significant problem in breast cancer patients, affecting between 20% to 70% of newly diagnosed or recently treated cancer patients. A 2017 study at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, found that similar to earlier studies, yoga can reduce fatigue, one of the most common side effect of cancer and its treatment.
4- Facilitate Recovery
Treatments like chemo take toll on patient’s overall health, stamina and strength. Through exercise, patients return to pre-cancer activity level much quicker than those who don’t exercise during treatment. By practicing a low-impact exercise like yoga, patients are able to be active while also focusing on their mental health.
5- Clear out toxins from cancer treatment
Yoga asanas stimulate not just muscles, but also enhance the body’s internal purification processes by increasing blood flow, balancing the glands and enhancing lymphatic flow in the body. Deep, relaxing breathing (often emphasized in yoga specifically for cancer patients also increases the current of oxygen-rich blood to cells, delivering vital nutrients to tired cells and further clearing out toxins.
Yoga During Treatment
Even when depleted due to cancer treatment, many yoga practices are accessible for patients. For myself, when the deep fatigue set in (which is a common side effect of radiation) practicing yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep,” provided much needed rest. When I felt able, gentle upper body stretches helped combat the chest tightness and limited shoulder movement resulting from scar tissue and radiation. But more often than not, I turned to pranayama, or breathing practices for their accessibility and mind-soothing effects.
In Sanskrit, “prana” means life energy and “yama” means control. The practice of pranayama involves breathing exercises and patterns. These practices have the ability to influence both our nervous and cardiovascular systems. Research studies have shown that controlled breathing is an effective relaxation tool that lowers stress hormones, improves sleep quality and reduces anxiety.
Pranayama Practices During Recovery
Below are two pranayama practices you can use at any stage of your treatment, but especially while recovering from surgery or actively undergoing treatment. As you engage with these techniques, be gentle with yourself. Maintain a steady, even breath, preferably through your nose. If you feel any agitation or shortness of breath, stop and rest. When comfortable, try again. You may repeat each exercise two or three times, with short breaks in between.
Sometimes called “coherent breathing,” this breath practice is calming and soothing. You can do it anywhere– sitting in the doctor’s office, riding in the car, or lying in bed.
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor. Observe the natural flow of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Notice if your inhales are shorter or longer than your exhales. Then begin to silently count as you inhale. For example, inhale for a slow count of three, then match the length of your exhale by counting to three. The breath should be smooth and effortless, so adjust the speed of your counting to match the natural length of your breath. As you practice, you may notice that you are able increase the count of each part of the breath to four or even five. There is no magic number, so find an easeful rhythm for you.
Continue the practice for three to five breaths. Then, let go of the counting and observe your natural breath. Notice any shifts or changes in your energy level or mood.
Ladder breathing, or Viloma pranayama, focuses on segmenting and lengthening the exhalation. Longer, slower exhales activate the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our “rest-and-digest” response.
Lie on your back or sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Bring both hands to your abdomen and feel the belly expand with each inhale and relax with each exhale. As you did with Equal Breathing, find a steady rate of inhalation and exhalation, counting the length of each.
Next, take an inhale. Then engaging your low belly, exhale 1/3 of the breath. Pause for 1-2 seconds before continuing to exhale another third, feeling your upper belly muscles engage. Pause again before exhaling the remainder of your breath.
Repeat three more times. Remember to find a comfortable length of inhalation and exhalation so that you remain calm and at ease. If at any point the breath feels forced or strained, abandon the practice and return to regular breathing.
Again, take a few moments at the end of your practice to observe any shifts or changes in your normal breath pattern, energy level or mood.
The ending to my saga? Well, I’m happy to say I’ve cancer-free since 2008. My diagnosis was a real wake-up call for me to look at my lifestyle and make changes to reduce stress and enjoy life more. In fact, it was after I’d finished treatment that I decided to become trained as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist.
Today, my post-cancer yoga practice is much slower, gentler than it was before my diagnosis. I rely on my intuition to guide my daily practice, adjusting which postures I do and how long I practice from day-to-day to meet my shifting needs. I’m also more introspective, devoting more time to meditation, journaling and pranayama. Now I recognize that it’s not how much time I spend on my mat, but how present I am during my yoga practice. This spills over into my life as I prioritize being present in my daily interactions and activities. But most of all, I’ve learned to appreciate and express my gratitude for the abundant blessings each day brings– life, love, family and friends.
Next week, I’ll share a short yoga sequence at any stage of your treatment and recovery process. Until then, be well.