Five Ways Yoga Helps Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

Firefly Sisterhood’s Participants and Supporters are a talented bunch, and today’s Guest Blogger is no different.

Nicole L. Czarnomski is the author of How Cancer Cured My Broken Soul and freelance writer in Rochester, Minnesota. She is also a Guide with the Firefly Sisterhood.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Many of those women diagnosed endure painful procedures and grueling side effects causing fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, mouth sores, hair loss, weight gain or loss, early menopause, lymphedema, and emotional distress.

Practicing yoga is not a cure all but it is one way to manage the stress of the diagnosis and the physical side effects brought on by treatments. Yoga poses and conscious breathing incorporates the mind and body while helping to build muscle strength and heal the mind.

Certified yoga instructor and Cancer Exercise Specialist trainer, Allison Roe, offers tips to manage side effects by using different yoga poses and breathing techniques to help you find peace along your journey.

Fighting Fatigue

If you are suffering from fatigue Roe states, “Yoga stimulates blood flow, which combats fatigue. Even a gentle yoga class can elevate your heart rate enough to increase blood flow to your body.” She recommends doing Warrior poses, low and high lunges and triangle pose if you are looking for more active methods. For gentle poses, try child’s pose, butterfly, legs up the wall, and savasana.

Breath of Fire or Skull Breath helps bolster energy. Roe says not to partake in these methods if you are pregnant, have high or low blood pressure, heart disease, stroke history or have had a recent abdominal surgery.

Suppressing Insomnia

There are many reasons cancer patients may suffer from insomnia. For some people, insomnia occurs when given high doses of steroids to fight the fatigue from chemotherapy drugs. Others incur insomnia because of stress and anxiety that goes along with the journey.

Roe says, “Yoga helps calm the nervous system.” A 2013 study published in the “Journal of Clinical Oncology” reported participants who took part in a yoga program noticed better sleep quality, sleep duration, and less daytime drowsiness.

Poses to help with insomnia are supine butterfly, sleeping swan or half pigeon, legs up the wall, and savasana. Additionally, deep belly breathing can help manage insomnia.

Stress Management

There are many reasons breast cancer patients feel stressed and plagued with anxiety. This is a natural part of the diagnosis and treatment. Some patients are overwhelmed with decisions, thoughts about finances, their families, household chores, their careers, physical changes, treatment plans and more. If you allow those thoughts to take control of your life, the side effects can be far greater, so it is important to find a way to manage the stress. Roe says yoga is a way of getting out of your head and into your body. By focusing on the connection between breath and movement, you can drop into a semi-meditative state calming the nervous system.

She recommends forward bends because this action forces the body to exhale deeply, which is met with a deeper inhale, calming the nervous system. Restorative yoga is an excellent yoga practice to help with stress. This type of yoga is about slowing down and opening your body through passive stretching. There are minimal movements and most of the class is spent holding a few postures.

Try holding a seated forward fold. You may need to use a prop for this pose, try a folded blanket or bolster to lean into. Child’s pose is beneficial as well. If you hold tension in your neck and shoulders, try neck stretches, eagle arms, cactus arms, cow/cat, side bends, sleeping swan or firelog.

Fighting Physical Pain

Many breast cancer patients may have mastectomy scars, lumpectomy scars, axillary cording, radiation damage and joint pain from hormone inhibitors. There are not only side effects while going through radiation treatment, but there are also long-term, permanent effects as well. The breast mound can shrink and harden. If implants are radiated, it can cause varying degrees of capsular contracture, the formation of a “capsule” of scar tissue surrounding the breast mound. This can lead to having a painful, misshapen breast. The same can occur with axillary cording. The cording under the armpit becomes taut, with little to know pliability giving the shoulder limited range of motion.

Roe describes damage like this: muscles can become frozen after radiation, similar to the Tin Man, who squeaks and creaks when he moves. While yoga cannot cure this type of pain, it can bring fluid back to the area, fluid which is oxygenated (because of breathwork) and flushes out old, stagnant toxins and fluids from your stuck muscles.

Generally, for upper body stiffness due to mastectomy scars, cording or frozen shoulder, poses like eagle arms, cowface arms (when done gently and with props like straps) can assist in reawakening these spaces. She also recommends cactus arms and cactus claps. Down dog against the wall is another option to aid in bringing fluid back into stuck muscles.

Counterbalancing Lymphedema

While compression garments are a way to cause lymphatic fluid to flow away from the area, yoga poses also stimulate movement of lymphatic fluid. The combination of the two can benefit in lessening the symptoms of lymphedema.

Roe says, “The lymphatic system doesn’t have an organ to assist movement (unlike the cardiovascular system, which has the heart to facilitate blood movement), so moving muscles helps move the lymphatic fluid. This movement pushes the fluid into lymph nodes, which clean out the garbage carried by the lymphatic fluid.” When lymph nodes are removed it is like being short staffed, the ones leftover must work harder to move the fluid throughout the body. When you do yoga, Roe says it’s like lending a helping hand to the lymphatic system.

Roe recommends, legs up the wall, cactus arm claps, cow/cat either from tabletop or seated, bridge especially when a prop is used to support the pelvis, Warrior 1/2/3, extended side angle and bird dog. Try deep belly breathing to aid in fluid movement as well.

For more information:

Allison Roe:

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