Written by Marianne Woods Cirone, MS, MFA, E-RYT
Helping people diagnosed with cancer to navigate the journey of cancer and cancer treatment with the many tools of yoga is one of my passions in life. I currently teach Empowerment Yoga for Breast Cancer Care at the Prana Yoga Center in Geneva, Illinois, which meets on Tuesdays at 5:45 and is free of charge for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lisa Bertke, the owner of Prana Yoga generously hosts this class, and Lesley Ronson Brown is an enthusiastic yoga teacher and a breast cancer warrior/educator who also teaches this class with me.
I have been teaching yoga classes to women with breast cancer and other types of cancer for over a decade, and it continues to be a great experience for me, and from what my students tell me, for them as well. The sense of community which develops in these classes is one of the biggest benefits of teaching in this type of setting, and is what in the yoga world we call sangha, which is basically a conscious community.
Research on Yoga for Cancer
Recently, there has been a great deal of research on yoga and other integrative therapies for people with cancer. The Journal of Clinical Oncology, a leading publication in the cancer field, published three studies of randomized clinical trials on yoga and cancer in the past two years. The research consistently supports the use of yoga as an integrative modality that helps people diagnosed with cancer to live better lives, suggesting the following benefits for people diagnosed with cancer:
· Less fatigue
· Better sleep
· Improved quality of life
· Increased range of motion
· Less pain
· Less anxiety, depression and cancer-related distress
· Normalized cortisol rhythms
"Each week we see the classes grow, and while it is unfortunate that so many women are affected by this condition, it is fortunate that we are able to provide this resource."
How I Started Teaching Yoga for Breast Cancer
About 15 years ago, I was a fledgling yoga teacher, and Lisa Bertke was the first yoga teacher that I could find when I moved to St. Charles, Illinois, so I started to take Lisa’s classes at a local dance studio.
About that time, Lisa had started to teach a yoga class to help a friend of hers dealing with the side effects of breast cancer treatment. The yoga helped her friend greatly, and Lisa took her compassion to Delnor Hospital, the local community hospital. Lisa launched the “Yoga by Design” program for breast cancer survivors, which included yoga classes and a research study funded by the Delnor Foundation and held at Delnor.
Soon after Lisa started this program, Lisa opened the Prana Yoga Center and asked me to take over her Delnor classes since she knew that I was very interested in health-related yoga, now known as yoga therapy. Louise Hague, another friend and early Prana Yoga instructor, began to teach a second Yoga by Design class that was added at Delnor.
When the LivingWell Cancer Resource Center opened in Geneva, the Delnor cancer-focused classes moved there and so did Louise and I. In 2007, I took the job as Wellness Coordinator at LivingWell, staying in that position until early 2015. Many of the Prana Yoga instructors taught at LivingWell, as well as other top teachers from the Prairie Yoga programs and other yoga programs.
In 2015, Lisa, Lesley and I saw a need for a studio-based, breast cancer-focused yoga class in our community and Lisa generously offered to sponsor the program at Prana. So, we started the new Empowerment Yoga for Breast Cancer Care classes on Tuesday evenings, and as Lisa said, the program has come home again. Each week we see the classes grow, and while it is unfortunate that so many women are affected by this condition, it is fortunate that we are able to provide this resource.
What is Different about Yoga for Breast Cancer?
When I started to teach yoga for breast cancer in 2003, I knew little about cancer or how to modify for it, and there was little information available back then. Over the course of the past decade, I took formal trainings modifying on yoga and exercise for cancer, did a great deal of research on the topic, including serving as Principal Investigator on a study, reading probably hundreds of studies and interviewing experts on the topic.
Besides creating the community amongst cancer survivors, there are other reasons why a specific yoga class for people who have gone through breast cancer treatment makes sense. Cancer treatments often have an array of side effects, both short- and long-term, that require modifications from what might be done in a standard community yoga class. For example, one of the potential and common side effects of cancer treatment is lymphedema, which is a swelling of the limbs and other areas that can occur after lymph nodes have been affected by surgery or radiation. Certain practices may be contraindicated, while other practices may be sought for the therapeutic effects for this condition. A cancer-trained yoga teacher would know how to modify poses and make recommendations for conditions such as this.
My next project is launching an online publication called the Integrative Cancer Review, which will feature information on where and how to find safe and effective evidence-based integrative modalities for people affected by cancer. Our motto is “Multiplying the Power of Healing,” and our goal is to provide increased access to yoga and other safe and effective modalities, such as Reiki, massage, acupuncture, meditation and other therapies which can benefit both patients and caregivers during and after cancer treatment.
Knowledge IS power, especially after a cancer diagnosis, which is why we call our program Empowerment Yoga for Breast Cancer. The more that people know about how and why to practice yoga and integrative therapies after a cancer diagnosis, the more powerful the healing potential there will be for them. It is great to see people feel empowered after a major life challenge and know all the support that is out there for them.