Patients are beating cancer only to fall prey to sexual dysfunction, body pain, and chronic disease. The physical symptoms of their success increase the emotional burden, leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicide, as they are reminded daily of the chance that the cancer they had might return or a new one might occur.
But there may be an easy way to relieve this burden and improve patient health. In the July/August issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports, University of Alberta research fellow Amy Speed-Andrews, Ph.D., has found that yoga can dramatically improve patients’ sense of well-being.
For two years, Speed-Andrews has surveyed breast cancer patients and survivors at the beginning and end of 10-week sessions of Iyengar yoga, which uses blocks, blankets, and balls to help participants realize the asanas, or poses. All the women were being treated for or had completed cancer treatment. At the end of the session, 94% said their quality of life had improved, 88% felt better physically, 87% reported being happier, and 80% felt less tired. Other improvements were reported in body image and in decreased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. This is particularly significant, Speed-Andrews said, considering breast cancer treatments often leave women immobilized, in pain, tired, and depressed.
Iyengar yoga made the exercises easier to do, helping patients attain a wide range of movement. But the biggest boost may have come from being surrounded by classmates with similar experiences.
“A lot of them reported they like having classes purely for cancer survivors, especially breast cancer survivors,” Speed-Andrews said.
This camaraderie and improved physical fitness may be especially important for the more than two million breast cancer survivors who make up about a quarter of all cancer survivors in the U.S. Their complex treatments often extend for prolonged times. Adverse effects and symptoms of the disease, including infertility, menopausal symptoms, and fatigue, may linger for years. Other effects may include second cancers, lymphedema, and osteoporosis.
Up to 30% of breast cancer survivors experience persistent anxiety or depression after completing treatment, according to Cheryl Rock, Ph.D., a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who is leading the multicenter research.
“We believe weight loss and increased physical activity in overweight breast cancer survivors will have a positive effect on psychosocial problems and coexisting medical conditions,” she said. “They may even reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence.”
Rock will lead a five-center clinical trial to examine the effects of weight loss and increased physical activity on quality of life for breast cancer survivors. Documenting improvements in psychosocial and medical comorbidities during the trial could itself change the norms of clinical practice, Rock said, setting up a new aspect of care for breast cancer survivors after initial treatment.