A cancer diagnosis of any sort represents an unparalleled mental, physical, and emotional burden for all patients and their families. At least one-third of women who have had surgery for breast cancer experience significant distress, despite having a potentially positive prognosis. Surgical scars, drains, reconstruction of a very intimate part of their physical identity are but a few reasons that some patients become depressed and anxious.
Despite advances in surgery, chemo, and radiation therapy to treat breast cancer, there is increasing awareness of the need for the whole patient to be considered. The use of complementary therapies and alternative medicine (CAM) as an adjunct to conventional treatment has been scientifically proven to help women recover and improve their sense of well-being. Yoga is but one of the many different complementary therapies that significantly help patients who suffer from depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, adhesions, lymphedema, and fatigue. It promotes healing from and increases physical range of motion and overall wellness. It is recommended especially for patients who have had a mastectomy (single or double) because it offers exercises that promote flexibility in the body, and stretch the surrounding tissues in the armpit and shoulder girdle, making the muscles stronger while breaking up any scar tissue from the surgery. Fewer women suffer from disability if they regularly practice yoga. Range of motion is restored, and quality of life improves.
The physical benefits notwithstanding, yoga also presents a calming effect and general improvement in a sense of wellness. Through breath work and meditation, which are integral parts of any good yoga practice, women experience less anxiety and a restored sense of being able to deal with life’s problems as they arise, without feeling overrun with fear and anxiety. Blood and lymphatics flow more readily when certain yoga poses are employed, giving a nourishing element to all organs and cells.
Perhaps one overlooked benefit of the yoga practice is that of belonging to a community. Although yoga can be done in one’s home (and there is merit to that, for many are intimidated to go to a public class), there is an added sense of “belonging” and not feeling isolated. It is especially helpful to practice with a teacher who is trained in working with patients who have had surgery; and even more specifically, mastectomy/reconstruction. It is always wise to consult your physician before embarking on any exercise program, including yoga.
As with anything new, it is important to be patient through the healing process, never forcing a pose or causing undue stress on the body. It is best to start with a gentle practice, and to remember that yoga is a practice. The benefits will unfold, as early as the first class, and very subtle changes will emerge over time. It is not a quick fix, and must be experienced as part of the journey—one that is very worthwhile indeed!
Maida Broudo, MA, RTTR has a masters degree in journalism from Harvard University. Belinda Termeer has 30 years of experience treating cancer patients.