Yoga & Cancer: A Healing Journey

cancer linda sparrowe science of yoga yoga philosophy Oct 07, 2022
A banner with a photo of post author Linda Sparrowe.

by Linda Sparrowe

The moment I drove into Shambhala Mountain Center, high in the Rocky Mountains of
Colorado, I began to worry. I had come to this spiritual retreat center to teach yoga,
certainly not a novelty for me. But these women—all 65 of them—had cancer. These
weren’t women who had beaten back the disease and needed to replenish their energy or regain their strength and flexibility—I had plenty in my yoga toolkit for them. These
were women reeling from a new diagnosis or right in the throes of wrenching
treatment—or, in a few cases, dying from the metastasized cells that had taken over their bodies. Could yoga really help them?

I joined the other Courageous Women, Fearless Living presenters on opening night: Judy Lief, a longtime Buddhist meditation teacher and author of Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide for Encountering Mortality, who would teach mindfulness training and meditation practice; Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, who would present the latest findings in integrative cancer research and nutrition; and Sofia Diaz, who would offer evenings of dance and expressive movement. I was eager to meet our guests and still hopeful that my trusty toolkit—poses for stiffness, digestive woes, and lymphedema; breathing techniques for nausea, fatigue, and anxiety—would help them through at least some of their challenges. As we all sat together in the Shrine Room, I met one woman who shook with Parkinsonian tremors brought on by a brain tumor; I listened to another ravaged by not one type of cancer but four; and my heart broke for the woman with uterine cancer who was young enough to be my daughter. With every tale told, I felt less confident that they would be able to do even the gentlest of my asana choices. The shiny gift I had brought to the party began to look pretty tarnished.

While each story and every diagnosis were obviously unique, I quickly understood that
what connected these women and would hold them close together went beyond the
physical manifestations of their disease and cut to the heart of their emotional pain and their fear—for their families and for themselves. I went back to my room that night and
put aside my carefully scripted class notes. I set the intention to pay attention deeply and to meet the women wherever they were at any given moment—in other words, to truly teach yoga. From the opening Om of our first early morning practice to the final bow five days later, everyone moved, breathed, and cried. They learned to love themselves and support each other, and chose to embrace yoga and meditation as companions on the road to healing, from diagnosis through treatment, recovery, and sometimes even recurrence. And in the end, their hearts broke open to reveal a fierce strength and a tenderness that allowed them to protect, care for, and embrace a self that ultimately was larger than the disease inhabiting their bodies.

In the Yoga Sutra (2.16), Patanjali warns that suffering yet to come can and should be
avoided; in other words, anticipate any future pain and just don’t go there. Not so easy
when you’re awaiting the results of a biopsy, says Integral Yoga teacher Lynn Felder of
Salem, North Carolina, herself a survivor of ovarian cancer.

We all suffer when our minds catapult into the future: “Am I going to die? What will
happen to my children? Will I lose my hair?” Or get mired in the past: “If only I had
taken better care of myself…If only I had been a better daughter, partner, mom,
person…if only, if only, if only…I would not have gotten sick.”

The fear and anxiety a diagnosis triggers can actually make the illness worse, according to Bharat Aggarwal, PhD, professor of cancer medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. “Any time you panic, your body releases hormones that increase inflammation,” says Aggarwal, “and such inflammation can potentially increase tumor size.” His prescription? Slow down; learn to put your mind at rest; find your breath. In other words, as Patanjali said, don’t go there. And if you have a yoga or meditation practice, do it. Research shows that Aggarwal’s suggestions are right on target. For example, one Ohio State University study (published in January 2010 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine) shows that doing yoga regularly reduces the level of
inflammation—as measured by the amount of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) in the
blood—that normally rises when you’re stressed. IL-6, according to the study’s authors, has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Even more
interesting, the women in the study who had practiced yoga regularly for at least two
years not only reacted to stress more calmly (with lower levels of inflammation) when it
presented itself, but they had less IL-6 in their blood under normal circumstances, too. 

Women from the Courageous Women’s retreat may not have been privy to the results of this or any other study, but they could attest to the power of yoga to help them get
through the bad-news phase. One participant, Sarah Michaelson, took refuge in her yoga practice to keep her emotions from spiraling out of control when her doctors told her that her breast cancer may have metastasized and taken up residence in her ovaries. As her yoga instructor counted out the breaths in their pranayama practice that day, Sarah remembers, everything slowed down. “I noticed the inhale filling my belly and lungs. In a single moment, I am as big and boundless as the sky. The fear becomes a tiny droplet that evaporates with the heat of my exhale.” She felt a tremendous relief in knowing “that the stillness and peace were always there” if she could only make the time to access them.

While some women, like Sarah, find pranayama or seated meditation the perfect antidote to their anxiety, others find sitting still simply too agitating. Their nerves amplify the chatter in their minds. They need to get out of their heads and into their feet and feel the ground beneath them. They need to move—sun salutations, standing poses, and forward bends—not as a means of escape but as a way to calmly return to their center. Sarah Trelease, who co-teaches classes for women with cancer at OM Yoga in New York, encourages her students to receive what comes their way with the strength of a yogic warrior. Such a warrior can fearlessly meet the present moment, stand strong yet flexible in the face of whatever arises, breath by breath, regardless of the burning sensation in her thigh or the searing pain in her heart.

Anxiety doesn’t abate once treatment starts, of course. Instead, it gets tossed in with
myriad other concerns, both physical and emotional. Although side effects vary
widely—depending on the treatment protocol and the individual—nausea, fatigue,
insomnia, foggy thinking, digestive disorders, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing rank
high on the complaint list for many patients. Luckily, yoga can help manage these symptoms. And the research bears this out. Two small studies at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center used a form of gentle restorative yoga from the Integral Yoga Center’s cancer program. Suzanne Danhauer, PhD, who directed the studies on women with breast and ovarian cancers (61 percent of whom were concurrently receiving conventional cancer treatment), said the women enjoyed improvements in fatigue levels, depression, anxiety, and overall quality of life. After analyzing the data, Danhauer said she noticed that the women who had the hardest time emotionally coping with their illness actually benefited the most from the deep relaxation they experienced. 

Lorenzo Cohen, MD, professor and director of MD Anderson’s integrative medicine
program, has long had an interest in yoga’s effect on cancer treatment side effects. His
first study, published in 2004 in the journal Cancer, showed that doing yoga improved
sleep quality. Patients with lymphoma who were undergoing conventional treatment
reported that they slept longer, fell asleep quicker, and relied on fewer sleep meds when
they did yoga just once a week. His second study, in collaboration with Bangalore’s
Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, demonstrated that women with breast
cancer who participated in yoga classes while undergoing radiation performed better at
daily tasks by the end of treatment—tasks like lifting and carrying groceries or climbing
a flight of stairs. But equally as interesting, Cohen—whose grandmother, by the way, was world-renowned yogini Vanda Scaravelli—noticed that the women were able “to find meaning in their illness experience,” a variable, he says, that is associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. In other words, even when scary, unbidden thoughts surfaced, the yoga group had an easier time noticing them and letting them go.

These studies, and more, proved to the medical and science communities what yogis have known for millennia: Yoga works. For the women and men experiencing the harsh side effects of cancer treatment, yoga offers a respite from the emotional chaos and the
physical challenges they face. Jeannine Walston, whose own journey with a brain tumor
has sometimes thrown her into a state of disconnect, believes that the supportive practice of yoga helped her find her center. “Yoga brings me back into my breath and my body,” she says. “When I do yoga, my body opens into and remembers patterns that intrinsically restore a healing state.” She takes comfort in the group experience as well and sees it as an invitation “for everyone to move in a collective,” which is in itself profoundly healing.

Integral Yoga teacher Lynn Felder encourages her students to do restorative asana and
calming pranayama during treatment. She says so much is going on in the body, and the body is working so hard to deal with it all, that “it’s good to be still, listen, and be with
what is.” Sometimes just sitting is enough, she says.

Tari Prinster, the director of OM Yoga’s Women Cancer Survivors program, needed a
stronger, more physical practice to get her through her initial rounds of chemotherapy
after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She hated the anti-anxiety meds her doctors wanted to give her before each treatment, so she said no, thank you, and hired a friend to come over and do yoga with her instead. “We would go through a simple vinyasa practice, sit in meditation, and then I would go off to my treatment,” she said. She used pranayama to calm her anxiety during her chemo and then, immediately following, she made a point to do a little yoga, walk, or even ride her bike. “I wanted the residual toxins to move out of my body as quickly as possible.”

Ann Pendley, an 11-year survivor of breast cancer, says yoga helps her stay focused and present. “I don’t run away from my emotions as much,” she says. “When things come up, they just come up.” Just showing up for class for Ann mitigates the side effects from her drug treatments, whether she does a full 90 minutes of asana or can only muster a 10-minute Savasana. Even a little bit of relaxation helps her be aware and awake the rest of the day.

Recovery can bring with it a panoply of mixed emotions, bouncing from a deep sense of
relief to fear of recurrence as every ache and pain become suspect. Many survivors speak of the distrust they feel for their bodies, and the sense of always being “on guard.” Their cancer may be gone—excised through surgery, chemo, radiation, holistic therapies, or any combination of those—but the residual scars remain, and they are often left with a sense of loss and a constant reminder of how their bodies betrayed them—and perhaps how they have betrayed their bodies.

On a physical level, yoga can help cancer survivors get their strength back, regain
flexibility, improve endurance, increase muscle tone, and restore balance. For breast
cancer survivors, lymphedema—a pooling of fluid in the soft tissue under the arm—can
be quite painful. Restorative poses as well as lateral movements, supported inversions,
and gentle stretches—like half-downward-facing dog at the wall—can help get the fluid
moving through the body instead of getting stuck in one place.

On a deeper level, yoga can help a cancer survivor recover a sense of self, or perhaps
discover it for the first time. Ellen Frohardt, who recovered from a very rare form of
cancer—chondrosarcoma of the cricoid cartilage, which resulted in surgical removal of
her larynx—found yoga to be both her ally and her nemesis. She came to yoga because she knew she had to face her illness from the inside out. Yoga gave her a new way to relate to herself, but it wasn’t always that easy to do. “Mentally and emotionally, yoga has slapped me upside the head for my lack of patience,” she says. Her MO has long been to push through pain and do it faster. “It’s not the physicality of the practice that challenges me,” she says, “but what it reflects in my nature that is so profound and
sometimes so difficult to bear.”

Each time a new group gathers at Shambhala, women sit with wigs on, and oversized
clothing disguises their bodies. They speak of the shame they feel when they see their
bald heads in the mirror or take their clothes off to expose what one woman calls her
“bloated, scar-riddled body that obviously belongs to someone else.” Others complain
that they can no longer move, run, dance, or even walk like they used to. They hate what they look like—an ever-present reminder of their illness—and their posture and downcast faces reflect that. But stepping onto their mats they begin to understand yoga’s power to change their relationship to themselves. Yoga asks them to approach their practice and their bodies (just for that day, that moment, or that breath) with compassion, nonjudgment, and gentle humor. Their new mantra becomes “Isn’t that interesting?” as they notice how they feel when they can’t balance; when they have to take child’s pose and everyone else looks strong in warrior pose; when they reach for the wall, a chair, an outstretched hand for support when they can’t go it alone. Slowly they begin to practice not from a place of ego but from a sense of devotion. Not from an adversarial place, but a place of patience, kindness, and forgiveness. They learn, as Ellen did, to “kiss and make up” with the being they’re in conflict with. 

A yoga and meditation practice can be a powerful means for self-reflection, a laboratory
of loving experimentation, and an opportunity to let go—of judgments and expectations.
For Vikki Wagner, a two-time breast cancer survivor, asana and pranayama gave her
permission to be gentle with herself. And as she moved through the classes, she found
herself surrendering, releasing what she had been holding so rigidly. Almost immediately, she says, “I found my energy level increasing. Joints that had been frozen
from immobility became ‘juicy’ again and I began to feel as though I would be OK.”
Through yoga and meditation, she learned what she gave power to was what was holding her back; in her case, thoughts and fears of physical limitations. “When I was able to release those thoughts, focus on my breath and my miraculous body,” Vikki says, “I was able to reclaim my power and my courage.” Yoga teaches all of us that we are perfect just the way we are. No one can promise that yoga or meditation will cure cancer, but for the countless [people] who have made a commitment to show up on their mats and their cushions no matter what, these practices have changed their lives.



Linda Sparrowe (she/her) is a writer, editor, speaker, and mentor in holistic healing, with a special emphasis on women’s health. She is the former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine and past managing editor of Yoga Journal, as such she has been instrumental in bringing the authentic voice of yoga to thousands of practitioners and teachers. Sparrowe is also on the advisory board of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

Sparrowe co-leads the Courageous Women, Fearless Living retreats for women touched by cancer. She also gives talks and provides workshops for women who are facing any number of challenges, including body issues, pregnancy, anxiety, depression, menopause and more.


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