The Surprising Way Yoga Affects Breast Cancer Patients

Photo: Christine Hewitt

For many cancer patients, sleep is hard to come by. According to the National Cancer Institute, up to half of people have a hard time sleeping during or after cancer treatment. But a new study out of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found that for breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, practicing yoga just twice a week is linked to better sleep quality and better sleep efficiency over time.

"Previous research has established that yoga effectively reduces sleep disturbances for cancer patients but have not included active control groups or long-term follow-up," explains lead study author Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine and director of the Integrative Medicine Program. "This study hoped to address previous study limitations."

The importance of sleep and healing from cancer.

While a few sleepless nights aren't great for the average person, they're even more detrimental for cancer patients. "Sleep deprivation is linked with lower natural kill (NK) cell activity, and NK cells are critical for an optimally working immune system. They're crucial for healing." explains Elizabeth W. Boham, M.D., M.S., R.D. "Yoga can help your body relax, calm down, and make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. I especially love yoga nidra and restorative yoga for sleep."

Photo: Christine Hewitt

As for other methods for getting more sleep, Boham says she gives cancer patients she works with a handful of recommendations. "So often we are working on our computers until right before bedtime, and this makes it harder to get to sleep. I recommend that people put away their electronic devices one hour before bedtime, create a good sleep routine. This can include a nice bath or a stretching or yoga routine. Also, make sure to get outside and get sunshine early in the day—this makes it easier to fall asleep at night."

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The actions real cancer patients take to get more sleep.

The science is one thing, but what do real cancer patients do when they can't fall asleep? Sara Quiriconi, a famous Miami-based yoga instructor who is now 14 years cancer-free, recommends yoga to anyone going through cancer treatment.

"Yoga helps you to reconnect your mind and your body, something that was destroyed (at least in my case) while going through cancer treatment," she says. "Breathing, gentle movement, and meditation—all of the calming, relaxing effects of the practice—help to mediate that. And, while I wasn't practicing enough asana (the physical movement of yoga) at the time of my treatment, I did find visualization exercises, breathing deeply, and journaling helpful when it came to sleeping better through the night."

Breast cancer survivor Mia Russo Stern, who is now CEO of Brooklyn Culinary Arts, recommends a combination of earthing and yoga, saying that she found doing yoga outside alone on her mat to be "magical." But she points out that in the early stages, yoga can be painful. "After breast cancer and a double mastectomy, yoga can be very difficult and painful," she says. "The first thing you need to do is get clearance from your surgeon that you are able to attend yoga! After that, let your yoga instructor know that you are recovering. Take it slow, and absorb the well of love and positivity that yoga possesses. Only do what you are comfortable with."

Are you on your own cancer-healing journey? Here are four foods that prevent cancer and will help you stay healthy for life.

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