(Reuters Health) – About one third of breast cancer survivors experience fatigue that can affect their quality of life, but a small new study finds that doing yoga might help restore some lost vitality.
After three months of twice-weekly yoga classes, a group of breast cancer survivors in California reported significantly diminished fatigue and increased “vigor.” A control group of women who took classes in post-cancer health issues, but didn’t do yoga, had no changes in their fatigue or depression levels.
Dr. Maira Campos, a research scholar at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, said the findings echo similar results from past studies that looked at yoga and cancer patients.
Persistent fatigue lasting years after cancer treatment is a common problem whose origin is unknown, and for which there are no validated treatments.
Some studies have shown that stress-reduction techniques or exercise classes can help reduce fatigue among cancer patients and survivors in general. But none of them has specifically targeted cancer survivors experiencing fatigue to see if a potential therapy reverses the problem, according to Julienne Bower, an associate professor in the psychology department of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues.
They recruited 31 breast cancer survivors to undergo “treatment” for their fatigue over 12 weeks at the UCLA Medical Center. Each woman was randomly assigned to participate in either two 90-minute yoga classes every week or a two-hour health class once a week.
At the start of the study, each group of women had similar scores on a questionnaire that gauges fatigue levels.
The group taking the educational classes experienced about the same amount of fatigue and energy throughout the initial study period. However, the group taking the yoga class reported about a 26 percent drop in fatigue and a 55 percent increase in energy after the 12-week yoga regimen.
The women in the yoga group also continued to report significant improvements in fatigue levels three months after the classes stopped.
The findings, published in the journal Cancer, do not prove that yoga caused the improvements in fatigue levels. The researchers note, however, that both groups of women had similar expectations that their assigned “treatment” would help them, so a placebo effect is not a likely explanation for the benefits seen in the yoga group.
Jacquelyn Banasik, an associate professor in the College of Nursing at Washington State University, also noted improvements in cancer fatigue after yoga classes in a study she published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners in 2010.
“I can’t say that yoga is the only way to achieve the results seen in ours and other studies,” Banasik told Reuters Health in an email. “A beginning ballet class — with (its) emphasis on form and positioning — might have similar effects. Gaining a sense of control over one’s physical body, when one has a disease like breast cancer, might be an important part of the benefit.”
Both of the studies by Bower and Banasik used Inyengar yoga, which, according to Banasik, emphasizes taking poses slowly and paying close attention to maintaining correct form.
Campos told Reuters Health that acupuncture, exercise and physical therapy are sometimes used to treat cancer survivors suffering from fatigue, without a prescription if their symptoms are mild.
She added that she would not prescribe yoga based just on the new study, however.
She said it would be better to compare yoga to another exercise instead of a health- class setting.
Campos also emphasized that it’s important for patients to talk to their doctors about fatigue during and after cancer treatments.
“The patient should not be suffering or impaired just because they had cancer,” Campos said.