Yoga and mindfulness for breast cancer

As interest in more holistic approaches to healing is growing, yoga therapy for breast cancer patients and cancer survivors is emerging as one of the more successful methods for combating the physical discomfort of cancer and cancer treatment. But this doesn't quite seem to tally with the stereotypical yoga images of healthy skinny people standing on one leg whilst balancing a foot over their shoulder. Chemo- and radiotherapy are incredibly exhausting, and the thought of moving around an exercise mat can be an offputting one, to say the least!  So this week, yoga therapist extraordinaire Iris explains how yoga fits into the picture.

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Think back to when you found a lump where there should not be one, and try to remember your emotions: anything from terrified, to hopeful that it is 'just a little benign cyst’.

For most people, a diagnosis of cancer is crushing, and the sheer amount of thoughts running through your mind can be completely overwhelming. From anger to denial, despair and hopefulness, the moment of diagnosis pushes you from being a fully functioning adult in charge of your health, life and plans for the future, to a cog in a never-ending wheel of assessments, blood tests, therapies, prognoses, people and options.

Life of course continues regardless, and as you try to juggle treatment and continue with your job, looking after your family, attempted to make sense of the insanity and injustice that is your breast cancer, the struggle can get harder. It may not be so bad during the day, but at night time, when time slows down and sleep just will not come (or leaves you before dawn) the mind will often concoct worst-case scenarios.  

If the course of action is a mastectomy, this too is not as simple as just cutting the cancer away and returning back to your old life. For women of course, the removal of the breast may have a profound impact on your feminine identity; but in a purely physical sense, whether male or female (because men can get breast cancer too!) it is a significant operation that can involve lymph nodes and muscles in the surrounding areas. Recovery is slow and painful, and physios need to be on hand to retrain you in the full use of your upper body.

A cancer diagnosis makes you aware of how precious every moment of life is, and how important it is to use our time well. What matters the most then, is how you are able to deal with this experience. Even when healed, it would be an unusual person who would say: with hindsight it was a good thing that happened. But breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, and it can be the very powerful cause for a change of life, a stimulant for personal growth, change and ultimately healing into a better life. Living with cancer means to be fearful of uncertainties, even when treatment is finished and you are cancer free.

So, the most powerful outcome of your yoga practice is not so much the physical strength that you can gain in the gentle exercises that are especially tailored around breast cancer. It is the fact that it enables you to develop mental strength by managing the emotional rollercoaster that has become your life. To quote Desikachar: “However powerful or disturbing something may appear to be, it is our reaction to it that determines the outcome”

In our yoga therapy sessions we focus on retraining the breath, much like we would tune an instrument, and on stilling the mind, even just for a few moments.

The two most important tools for this are mindfulness meditation and deep relaxation, namely Yoga Nidra (or yogic sleep). Meditation simply means self awareness. Watching your breath, listening to birds, gazing into a candle: as long as it is done with a straight back and free from other distraction to the mind, you are meditating.

Regular meditation practice results in feeling more in control of yourself and your life. The effect is accumulative: many studies have shown that regular meditation lowers blood pressure and reduces the pulse rate, as well as anxiety and stress levels. Since the 1960s, meditation has been the focus of increasing scientific research of uneven rigour and quality. There are over 1000 published research studies, and most of them have linked meditation to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation and other bodily processes. It also has been used in clinical settings as a method of stress and pain reduction.

Yoga also has been found to enhance the desired effect of conventional treatments, namely radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. Deep relaxation improves healing after therapies and surgery by maximising the blood flow to affected areas and provides a form of gentle movement that can be used even when a person’s energy is very low. Yoga is known to bring about harmony amongst the various metabolic activities in the body and achieves a greater degree of metabolic balance.

Patients who practice yoga as therapy during their treatment report that therapeutic yoga poses bring great relief, hope and optimism into their battle against this illness - and, ultimately, anything that helps you to cope on your own is valuable on the way to healing, even if it may be healing into death.

Whether you are going through cancer treatment or would just like to learn more about yoga and mindfulness, Iris offers individual yoga sessions at Victory; please call us on 0207 175 0150 or click the button below to request further information.

Nell Mead