Study: Yoga Benefits Breast Cancer Survivors

Jan 29, 2014

New research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology shows that yoga may be particularly beneficial at helping breast cancer survivors mitigate fatigue and inflammation.

According to the study, which surveyed about 200 women, after three months of doing yoga classes, women were experiencing 40 percent less fatigue than those who did not practice yoga. Additionally, the women’s levels of inflammation were reduced 10 to 15 percent.

NPR’s Food and Health Correspondent Allison Aubrey joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the findings.


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And if you're a yogi, you may not need any convincing about the benefits of a regular yoga practice. But a new study published in "The Journal of Clinical Oncology" helps add to the evidence that yoga may be particularly beneficial at helping breast cancer survivors overcome debilitating fatigue. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about the research. Hi, Allison.


CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us about the study. Who was included? And why were the researchers interested in looking at the effects of yoga on fatigue?

AUBREY: Well, the study included about 200 women. All of them were breast cancer survivors who had completed surgery and other treatments for the disease. They range in age from their late 20s, all the way up to women in their mid-70s. And these women had one thing in common. They were feeling tired. This can be a big problem among breast cancer survivors. About a third complain about fatigue getting in the way of just normal, daily activities.

So the researchers have the idea, you know, hey, what's a way to give women an option for physical activity that doesn't seem overly daunting? This yoga class was a very gentle, 90-minute class. It met two times a week. And it was geared towards newbies, so women who had never tried yoga at all.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. And what, exactly, did the researchers measure in terms of the effects of the yoga practice?

AUBREY: The women completed surveys at the beginning and the end of the study. The surveys asked all kinds of questions about fatigue, energy level, sleep. And the researchers also took blood samples from the women so that they could measure levels of different markers in the blood that signal inflammation. What they found is that after three months of doing yoga, the women were experiencing about 40 percent less fatigue, compared to another group of women in the study who did not do yoga. So this meant it was easier to get up and complete daily activities.

They spoke to one woman who participated in the study. Her name is Sue Cavanaugh. And she told me that the class made her feel a lot less stressed. As part of her treatment, she had six lymph nodes removed, and lost a lot of mobility in her right arm. And she told me that - you'll hear her voice in just a moment here - that the yoga practice really helped her regained some of this movement.

SUE CAVANAUGH: So not only losing the stress but also regaining the mobility - I'm happier because I can do the work I want to do.

AUBREY: She's an artist, and it requires a lot of movement of her hands and her upper body. So this was really helpful.

CHAKRABARTI: A moment ago, you mentioned that researchers took blood samples in the study to test levels of inflammation in the body. First of all, why look at inflammation? And what did they find?

AUBREY: What they found is that at the end of the three-month yoga class, women's levels of inflammation were reduced about 10 to 15 percent. Then by six months, the researchers documented a slightly higher reduction, up to about 20 percent. Now, it's not clear that this level of reduction is significant, in terms of any particular health benefit. But since inflammation is a risk factor for all sorts of diseases of aging - including heart disease, which a lot of breast cancer survivors go on to develop - any reduction in inflammation certainly can't be a bad thing and is likely beneficial.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Now, is it that yoga itself as a practice is the thing that was causing all these positive benefits, or can any type of movement or exercise have the same benefit?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, clearly, exercise is one of the best ways to fight fatigue. And however you can get it in, it tends to be beneficial. Researchers at Duke have found that if physical activity is prescribed and the survivors are leaned on to follow up on this, exercise has a very big payoff. So in a way, you know, no, yoga is certainly not the only way to get this relief. But in this instance, it was a very realistic way for these women to begin moving again.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, I'm inspired now to go do more sun salutations.


CHAKRABARTI: NPR food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: All right. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.