A study conducted at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that women receiving radiation therapy for treating their breast cancer, experienced unique benefits while practicing yoga, including reducing fatigue.

While simple stretching exercises improved fatigue, the women using yoga activities that included  yogic breathing, postures, meditation and relaxation techniques in to their treatment plan experienced enhanced physical functioning, improved general health and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels. They were also more likely to find meaning in their experience of cancer.

The findings, to be presented next month in an oral session at the 47th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology by Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson.  This is the latest research of an ongoing effort to validate the age-old belief that mind-body interventions have a beneficial impact on the health of cancer patients. India’s largest yoga research institution, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana in Bangalore, India were collaborators.

This is the first time study has determined, yoga benefits to cancer patients by comparing their experience with patients in an active control group who integrated simple, generic stretching exercises into their lives (similar to yoga).  Dr. Cohen noted, “The combination of mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical distress associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching.” s

To conduct the study, 163 women with breast cancer (stage 0-3) averaging 52 years of age were randomized to one of three groups: 1) yoga; 2) simple stretching; or 3) no instruction in yoga or stretching. During their six weeks of radiation therapy, the participants in the yoga and stretching groups attended sessions specifically tailored to breast cancer patients for one hour three days a week.

Participants were asked to report on their quality of life, including daily physical functioning, benefit finding, fatigue, depression and spirituality. Saliva samples were collected and electrocardiogram tests were administered at the beginning, end of treatment, and at one, three and six months post-treatment.

After completing radiation treatment, only the women in the yoga and stretching groups reported a decline in fatigue. At one, three and six months after radiation therapy, the participants who practiced yoga during the treatment period reported greater benefits to physical functioning and general health. Also, compared to the other two groups, they were more likely to perceive positive life changes from their cancer experience.

Women who practiced yoga also experienced the largest decrease of their cortisol level throughout the day, indicating that yoga had the ability to regulate this stress hormone. This is particularly important because higher stress hormone levels throughout the day, known as a blunted circadian cortisol rhythm, have been linked to worse outcomes in breast cancer.

According to Cohen, developing a yoga practice also helps patients after completing cancer treatment. “The transition from active therapy back to everyday life can be very stressful as patients no longer receive the same level of medical care and attention. Teaching patients a mind-body technique like yoga as a coping skill can make the transition less difficult.”

This is the largest award ever for the study of yoga and cancer was provided by the National Cancer Institute.Cohen and his team will next conduct a Phase III clinical trial in women with breast cancer to further determine the mechanisms of yoga that lead to improvement in physical functioning, quality of life, and biological outcomes during and after radiation treatment. A secondary goal of the trial, but one of great significance, Cohen emphasized, is assessing cost efficiency analysis for the hospital, health care usage costs in general, and examining work productivity of patients.

MD Anderson recognizes the growing body of research indicating that relaxation-based interventions can contribute to the well-being of people with cancer. Through the Integrative Medicine Program, complementary therapies, such as yoga, are offered at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center, and are used in concert with mainstream care to manage symptoms, relieve stress, enhance quality of life, and improve outcomes for patients and their caregivers. MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine faculty also conduct research in the biological and behavioral effects of mind-body based interventions; the anti-cancer potential of natural compounds; and, acupuncture to treat common cancer treatment-related side effects.


University of Texas MD Anderson Integrative Medicine