Yoga and walking can make a difference to cancer patients

Why practising yoga and walking for 30 minutes a day could stop cancer spreading or returning.

Anyone who practises yoga knows how great it can be for the mind and body. But a new study has suggested that it can help with cancer too.

The research, presented this month at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting says yoga could help reduce the risk of cancer spreading or returning.

Two other studies relating to cancer and exercise were also presented at the Chicago meeting, the world’s largest cancer conference. One found yoga helped with fatigue and quality of life in cancer patients, and the other found walking for 30 minutes a day could reduce a patient’s risk of dying by almost a fifth.

Researchers say yoga and walking can’t take the place of traditional treatments, but gentle exercise really can make a difference for those with or in remission from cancer.

A woman doing a yoga pose in natureCredit: Shutterstock / Halfpoint
Yoga could help reduce the risk of cancer returning or spreading say experts

Many of the UK cancer charities already recommend yoga for beginners to help sleeplessness and fatigue both during and after treatment. Studies on breast cancer patients have shown that it can help.

Doctors have sometimes been reluctant to push sufferers to exercise during often gruelling treatment, but the Guardian reported that lead researcher Karen Mustian told the ASCO conference: “What I say to doctors is you should recommend to them [cancer patients] yoga as an option and you should help them find places in their community where they can do it.”

The study, by the University of Rochester Medical Centre, was into the impact of Yocas, a gentle form of yoga, on inflammation in the body. Inflammation can be a powerful force in the development and spread of cancer.

For the study, more than 500 cancer patients with an average age of 56 took up yoga or attended health education sessions twice a week for a month. Blood tests found levels of inflammation were significantly lower in those practising yoga to those taking part in general exercise.


What is Yocas?

Yocas was developed by Mustian and her colleagues at the University of Rochester and stands for Yoga for Cancer Survivors. It includes breathing exercises, gentle hatha and restorative yoga postures, and mindfulness exercises.

The team has trained instructors to deliver the programmes at nine cancer centres in the USA.

What do the British cancer experts say?

The news has been welcomed by those working with cancer patients in the UK, where gentle exercise, including yoga is recommended by many cancer charities and treatment centres.

Caroline Geraghty, specialist cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, told Saga Exceptional: “It’s completely understandable that patients may wish to consider all their options when they have cancer. While there is no scientific evidence to prove that yoga can cure or prevent any type of cancer, studies like these suggest that it might help people cope with symptoms and side effects.

“Some people with cancer find it helps to calm their mind, while others say it reduces tiredness and helps them move around more easily after surgery.

“Before you begin any yoga practice, make sure that you tell your yoga teacher about your condition. They can adapt the exercises to suit your needs. It’s important to take things gently at first to minimise the risk of injury.”

Jim Burt, the executive director of programmes at the UK’s National Academy for Social Prescribing, told the Guardian: ”This research supports the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the fast and varied benefits of exercise for physical and mental health.”

A woman practising yoga in bedCredit: Shutterstock / RealPeopleStudio
Yoga can help during the toughest times of cancer treatment

‘Yoga helped me when I had cancer – now its part of my life’

Deb English, from Monmouthshire, saw her GP when a mole on her shin started bleeding. She saw a consultant at a local hospital, who diagnosed a malignant melanoma, at an advanced stage.

The 66-year-old says: “It was a real shock. I was fit and healthy and the treatment and surgery, which kept me off my feet for some weeks, was a total change of lifestyle.

“I had practised yoga before my diagnosis, so with the help of my teacher, I was able to work out a programme of movements that I could do. Both the breathing and the meditation were vital to my wellbeing, then, and since too.

“Because of the nature of the surgery, physical activity became more difficult, but the yoga was perfect. It allowed me to work within my limited mobility and to help manage the problem of secondary lymphoedema. There was no pushing myself beyond my limit, no fear that I couldn’t achieve my aim, or that I’d hurt myself.

A woman looking at the cameraCredit: Deb English
English says yoga gave her a focus during her cancer treatment

‘Yoga is now part of my life’

“The discipline of yoga helped because it gave me a focus, something to turn to on bad days before the panic could take hold. It still enables me to feel positive, both in how I feel about myself and how I look, despite the scars and the swelling of my leg. It’s something I do on a still daily basis, even if just for a few minutes. It’s not a routine, it’s become part of my life.

“Did yoga help me beat cancer? That’s a question I can’t answer, but being able to achieve a set task gave me confidence. It did keep me calm and active, both of which enabled my body, in conjunction with excellent medical treatment, to fight the disease and to heal more quickly.”

Try yoga at home

The Royal Marsden Hospital is a world leader in cancer care and research. It recommends yoga as a therapy for cancer patients and has some free online sessions you can do at home.

A man and a woman walking along a pavement togetherCredit: Shutterstock / MonkeyBusiness Images
A 30-minute stroll five days a week can make a big difference

How walking helps cancer patients

At the ASCO conference Rochester Medical Centre also presented a study finding that yoga helped relieve fatigue and maintain quality of life.

Another study, by the Instituto de Medicina Integral, in Brazil, involved more than 2,600 cancer patients. This found that cancer patients who stayed active in old age cut their chances of dying by 18%. The study’s definition of active was doing at least one 30-minute walk five days a week.

(All three of the studies presented are yet to be peer reviewed by other scientists.)

Why walking is so important

Walking is great for all-round physical and mental health. Read our beginner’s guide to walking for more details. Now research is backing up the benefits of walking for cancer patients.

Catherine Hughes, CEO of British Nordic Walking, says: “We really welcome these reports. Many medical professionals are hesitant in prescribing exercise when treating many illnesses, including cancer, but these studies are part of increasing evidence that exercise makes a difference. 

“The traditional attitude was that if you have an illness, you sit down and do nothing. But now the new evidence is that this is the worst thing you can do. Gentle exercise is good for a whole host of different medical conditions.  Remember to start slowly and build up gradually.” 

She added that Nordic walking has benefits for cancer patients, especially for women who have had lymph node surgery.

A group of people nordic walkingCredit: British Nordic Walking
Nordic walking really benefits women who’ve had lymph node surgery

Walking can help you deal with fatigue

She says: “Literally within 20 minutes of starting Nordic walking you can see reduced swelling in your arm – it’s an almost instant benefit – it’s all down to the technique with the hands.

“It can also help you deal with cancer fatigue generally by spreading the effort over the whole body so that it feels easier.  The movement perks you up and makes you feel better.

“The evidence is there that it makes a difference for cancer sufferers, and we are really keen to talk about it.

“We’ve also got a new project in Manchester where we’ve trained 12 breast cancer patients to be Nordic walking instructors. They are in the process of setting up groups aimed breast cancer patients. These walks won’t be just about the physical benefits, but will be a walk and talk with instructors who are also cancer patients and can share experiences and advice.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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