A four-week yoga program covering breathing, meditation, postures and other techniques helped reduce fatigue and improve sleep quality in cancer survivors who also reported taking less sleep medication and improved quality of life, said US researchers.

These were the findings of the largest, randomized controlled study ever to examine the value of yoga specially designed for cancer survivors, and which are to be presented on 5th June at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2010 annual meeting in Chicago.

Fatigue and poor sleep are two of the most common side effects of surviving cancer and they can seriously affect quality of life.

About 80 per cent of cancer patients report having problems sleeping while they are in treatment, and 65 per cent continue to do so after it is over, said the researchers in a statement.

Lead investigator Dr Karen Mustian, assistant professor in the departments of radiation oncology and community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, told the press that:

“Very few, if any, treatments for the sleep problems and fatigue that cancer survivors experience work well for very long, if at all.”

“The study results point to a simple, non-pharmacological therapy that clinicians can recommend to help patients with several very common cancer-related problems,” she explained.

For the National Cancer Institute funded Phase II/III randomized, nationwide, multicenter trial, Mustian and colleagues assessed the impact of a yoga program in 410 survivors of early-stage cancer. The patients reported having sleeping problems between 2 and 24 months after finishing their cancer treatment.

96 per cent of participants were women and 75 per cent of them were breast cancer patients. Their mean age was 54.

They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group had only the usual post-treatment care (the control group) and the other group had the usual care plus participation in a specially designed 75-minute yoga class twice a week for four weeks.

The University of Rochester designed YOCAS (Yoga for Cancer Survivors) program taught the participants a series of mindfulness exercises that covered breathing (pranayama), meditation, visualization, and 18 different poses or asanas where the body is seated, standing or lying down.

Mustian said YOCAS was a blend of two forms of low-intensity types of yoga: Hatha and restorative yoga. She described the exercises as “gentle”:

“This wasn’t some kind of power Vinyasa yoga class,” she said, according to a CNN report.

The participants self-reported standard measures of Sleep Quality (SQ), Quality of Life (QOL) and fatigue before and after the interventions.

The results showed that:

  • Comparing pre- and post-intervention scores patients in the yoga group reported greater improvement in sleep quality (22 versus 12 per cent), reduced incidence of clinically imparied sleep (31 versus 16 per cent, and less daytime sleepiness (29 versus 5 per cent) compared with controls.
  • The yoga group showed these improvements in sleep while simultaneously reducing their use of sleep medication by 12 per cent.
  • This compared with an increase in use of sleep medication in the control group by 5 per cent.
  • The yoga group reported a 42 per cent reduction in fatigure, compared with only 12 per cent reduction in the control group.
  • And the yoga group also reported a 6 per cent improvement in quality of life compared with no change in the control group.

The researchers concluded that the specially designed YOCAS yoga for cancer survivors program significantly improved sleep, fatigue and quality of life, and reduced sleep medication use, in this randomized, community based, controlled clinical trial among 410 cancer survivors.

They recommended that clinicians consider using YOCAS with cancer survivor patients who report experiencing fatigue or having problems sleeping.

Mustian told CNN that you could probably find your own yoga class run by a teacher trained in Hatha or restorative yoga. She recommended you make sure the teacher is certified by the Yoga Alliance and ideally has experience of working with people with health problems.

“Effect of YOCAS yoga on sleep, fatigue, and quality of life: A URCC CCOP randomized, controlled clinical trial among 410 cancer survivors.”
K. M. Mustian, O. Palesh, L. Sprod, L. J. Peppone, C. E. Heckler, J. S. Yates, P. S. Reddy, M. Melnik, J. K. Giguere, G. R. Morrow.
J Clin Oncol 28:7s, 2010 (suppl; abstr 9013)
To be presented at 2010 ASCO Annual Meeting, Chicago, 5 June 2010.

Sources: ASCO, CNN.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD