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Yoga May Help Overcome Fatigue After Breast Cancer

People practice yoga at a fundraiser for a breast cancer foundation in Hong Kong.
Ed Jones/Getty Images
People practice yoga at a fundraiser for a breast cancer foundation in Hong Kong.

Exercise helps recovery after cancer treatment, but fatigue can make working out hard. Yoga can help reduce fatigue for breast cancer survivors, a study finds. It's one of a growing number of efforts using randomized controlled trials to see if the ancient practice offers medical benefits.

Women who took a yoga class three hours a week for three months reported less fatigue compared with a group of breast cancer survivors who did not do yoga.

"Fatigue is a major and serious problem in survivors," even years after treatments have ended, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, told Shots.

The participants who did yoga also had lower levels of cytokines, which are markers of inflammation, in their blood, Kiecolt-Glaser says. Cytokine levels were reduced up to 20 percent six months after starting yoga. It's not clear how this may affect their health, she says.

Other studies have found that fatigue interferes with daily activities for about one third of cancer survivors. "The less you do, the more fatigued you are," says Kiecolt-Glaser. Yoga seems to be a way to break that cycle. The study was published online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Researchers recruited about 200 women for the study, all of whom had completed cancer treatment within three years. They ranged in age from 20s to 70s. The class included a series of very gentle stretching and strength-building exercises as well as breathing techniques.

"It's relaxing and refocuses the body," Sue Cavanaugh of Columbus, Ohio, a study participant, told Shots. She says yoga has not only helped with fatigue; it's also helped her regain some of the lost mobility in her right arm.

"I'm happier because I can do the things I like," Cavanaugh says, including working with large installations in her work as an artist.

Earlier studies of yoga for cancer patients and survivors have found that yoga helped reduce distress, anxiety and depression and had a moderate effect on fatigue and quality of life. But a Cochrane review of studies looking at the broader issue of cancer and exercise found that more vigorous exercise produced greater reductions in fatigue and improvements in quality of life. Exercise also may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

The Cochrane review also points out the biggest problem with doing randomized controlled trials of yoga: You know if you're doing it. That could bias people's perception of benefits.

"We're getting [breast cancer survivors] on bikes, on treadmills and training them like athletes," says Lee Jones, an associate professor of radiation oncology who studies the effect of exercise on cancer patients. Fatigue is a hurdle for lots of survivors, he says. "But if you actually prescribe exercise, they can exercise, and pretty vigorously."

Yoga can be a complementary form of movement to aerobic exercise, Jones told Shots.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.