THE BLOG
19/11/2013 08:15 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Yoga and Cancer Treatment: A Holistic and Nurturing Approach

Being diagnosed with cancer is hard enough. Being treated like a "patient" or a number is hurtful. When people start seeing only the disease and not the person behind it, then we all need more education in how to deal with cancer.

Feelings of despair and resentment are quite common in people diagnosed with cancer, especially when they lead an active life. Questions like "How dares my body not do now what it used to do before?" can add frustration to someone who is already worried about their condition.

Getting familiar with the changes to one's body after cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be a difficult process.

For example, the scar tissue left from a mastectomy can limit the arm's movement on the affected area with further complications like swelling. Nerve endings can become de-sensitised after chemotherapy so they may make it difficult to stay balanced when standing or performing tasks that require accurate hands and feet movements like driving.

Cancer also affects those who are caring for people undertaking treatment or recovering from cancer.

Cancer: A People-Centred Approach

It makes sense to deal with cancer in a more people-centred approach that is more nurturing and focuses on the individuals and the people around them.

Yoga can be an extraordinary tool for bringing emotional and physical well-being to people affected by cancer and their loved ones.

Feelings of anxiety can be overpowering when receiving treatment for cancer. Emotional struggles are accompanied by physical symptoms like nausea, aches and pains, lack of energy and limited range of movement.

Something as simple as taking a yoga class can bring a sense of calm and reassurance. The meditation element of yoga is also an essential life skill that can be used in challenging situations like sitting for hours with an intravenous drip administering cancer drugs.

Yoga and Therapies for Cancer

Among the few centres in London that offer yoga classes specifically tailored for people with cancer is The Life Centre.

I took part in a yoga class for people affected by cancer with teacher Barbara Gallani, who has a background in working with people with limited mobility. Barbara works alongside medical practitioners and nurses to help cancer survivors have a better quality of life.

It was a privilege to participate in the class alongside people who underwent surgery and chemotherapy: they were positively beaming with positivity. In a yoga class the focus is on relaxation, concentration on the present moment and controlled postures. The teacher emphasises the need to live in the present and to use the yoga class as an opportunity to tune in, focus on the movement or a moment of stillness and let go of worries such as hospital appointments.

The gentle stretching and breathing help the flexibility and concentration of those who take part in the class: in the case of breast cancer survivors who had mastectomies, regular yoga practice improved the ease and range of movement in the arms. According to the Journal of Lymphoedema some controlled yoga postures under supervision of a qualified teacher can have beneficial drainage effects on swollen areas.

The most life-affirming element of Barbara's classes is that the yoga practice acts as a spontaneous support network. People coming to the class have different types of cancer (breast, prostate, lymphoma...) and therefore require tailored exercises for various levels of mobility. Yet, the class is not about feeling limited but about feeling supported. At the end of the class, participants spontaneously check in with one another to ask how they are feeling and how they are getting on with their treatment.

Another added benefit of practising yoga is improved sleep. A study published by the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York examining 410 cancer survivors found that practising yoga helps people with cancer sleep better at night and become less reliant on sleep medication. Insomnia or bad sleep can affect between 30 and 90% of cancer survivors.

A study from Stanford's Supportive Care Program published in Supportive Cancer Care saw a reduction in pain, increased energy levels and an improvement in sleeping patterns in cancer survivors who attended yoga classes.

I was also suggested to try cranio-sacral therapy with Karen Beamont to be able to understand the whole philosophy behind the Life Centre's tailored approach to dealing with cancer. Cranio-sacral therapy is a non-invasive technique that allows the body to heal and restore itself, bringing a renewed sense of vitality. Cranio-sacral therapy can also help regulate sleeping patterns and reduce stress and anxiety. It is worth remembering that stress can weaken the immune system so a gentle treatment that helps the body's own immunity can be a vital help in someone's recovery from cancer.

According to the UK cancer charity Macmillan Cancer Support, one in three of us will get cancer but the survival rates for cancer patients are improving.

If you know someone who has cancer or if you are affected by cancer, yoga and gentle therapies can improve the quality of life while undertaking medical treatment. Please consult your doctor before undertaking a new holistic regime.

About The Life Centre

The Life Centre in London has been offering yoga and treatments since 1993 (see yoga classes and therapies)