Beating Breast Cancer


By Kelly McGonigal  |  

Breast cancer affects many of us: One in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. The good news is that more women today are beating the illness. There are more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Yoga can be a valuable part of the process of healing and recovery from the disease, and classes for cancer patients and survivors are readily available. “Yoga can help women who have cancer find solace and learn to deeply care for themselves,” says Linda Sparrowe, a yoga teacher who co-leads yoga and meditation retreats for women touched by cancer.

New academic research backs this up. Several studies published this year show that yoga offers effective relief from the physical and mental effects of the disease and the side effects of treatment. These effects include symptoms such as fatigue, pain, swelling, stiffness, stress, and depression.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that after practicing Iyengar Yoga twice weekly for 12 weeks, breast cancer survivors were less depressed and exhausted and felt greater vitality. In another study of Iyengar Yoga, conducted at Washington State University, Spokane, participants felt better physically and emotionally, and they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This does more than reduce anxious feelings: Elevated levels of cortisol may contribute to cancer recurrence and earlier mortality among breast cancer survivors.

Yoga can also help survivors regain trust in their bodies. In a study at Indiana University, Bloomington, women who participated in an eight-week hatha yoga program were stronger and more flexible, felt less self-conscious about scars from surgeries, and were more accepting of their changed bodies. “Yoga helps us feel more comfortable with our bodies and ourselves,” says the study’s lead researcher, Van Marieke Puymbroeck, a professor of recreation therapy at Indiana University. “It helps us build inner resources to respond to life’s challenges.”

Restorative Retreats: Specialized support for people living with cancer.

Courageous Women, Fearless Living, Shambhala Mountain Center, Colorado. Annual retreat includes meditation instruction, integrative medicine, and yoga.

Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Bolinas, California. Weeklong retreats combine yoga and meditation, group support, massage, and integrative health education.

Pose for Pink Yoga Retreats, Libby Ross Foundation, New York City. Weekend retreats are led by yoga teacher and cancer survivor Tari Prinster.