YOGA for CANCER SURVIVORS

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During the 14 years I was the Executive Director of Enhancement, Inc. (a nonprofit that worked to improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors) October was always intense and packed with breast cancer events.  This is still a cause close to my heart, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share some knowledge and experience of this topic with my readers.

A few weeks ago, I took a very interesting class at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado (http://www.unco.edu/rmcri/about.html) and received certification as a “Cancer Exercise Specialist”. Since I have already been teaching yoga to cancer survivors for more than 10 years, I thought this would be a good choice for continued education.  This program is internationally known and does much of the leading research on exercise and its affect on the quality of life of cancer survivors. I was happy to learn they have a solid respect for yoga and its benefits, and I was even asked to show the class my Lymphatic Flow yoga series that I created for my own cancer classes.  (I plan to have this series up on YouTube before the end of this year, so check back at this website to see my December blog and the link to the video!)

Cancer has many forms and stages. Symptoms can arise from the disease itself and also from various treatments.  Common symptoms are pain, muscle weakness, depression/anxiety, fatigue, and lymphedema.  Yoga teachers generally know how to use different techniques to alleviate some of these symptoms. It is important, however, that yoga teachers working with these patients be educated about the barriers to certain movements and therapies following some cancer surgeries or treatments. For example, knowing the movements that might improve the range-of-motion in a woman who has just had breast cancer surgery isn’t enough. One must know the type of surgery, medications and other therapies used in order to know which specific movements are appropriate, what to expect from the patient in terms of energy levels, and so on. If the patient is receiving chemotherapy the best practice might simply be stress reduction and techniques to reduce fatigue.  After treatment, the approach might change to focus on posture, balance and range-of-motion.  Further along, adding strengthening poses would be important.

Because yoga has become popular, teachers and medical professionals need to be cautious about prescribing yoga in general. It is important to learn about each person individually including their general fitness level combined with their type of cancer, and type and phase of treatments. When in doubt, I always find the most beneficial focus is breath, relaxation and stress reduction. Having cancer is stressful. Teaching tools to help cope can provide the survivor with more energy that can then be used for healing.  Also, since surgery often involves changes in body shape (such as having breast tissue removed) giving guidance on posture, alignment and balance is important as well.

So, during this month when there is a pink focus on breast cancer, consider giving the gift of empowerment through yoga to a survivor you know.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.