BY GENEVIEVE MULLINS
The diagnosis of cancer can have an immense impact on the psychological aspect of one’s life. Patients may experience fear, stress, anxiety, anger and disbelief as they learn to adapt and cope with their cancer.
Even when treatment is over, the emotional turmoil doesn’t necessarily dissipate. The psychological stressors may even follow through into remission; identified as persistent uncertainty and worry about their future health.
Incorporating mind-body interventions adjacent to routine treatment has proven to alleviate the emotional turmoil associated with diagnosis and further uncertainty of progression of disease. Yoga is a complementary mind-body therapy that has increasingly grown in popularity among cancer patients and survivors. “By bringing attention to the breath and body, it anchors our mind in this moment”, Solaris Yoga Therapist Chandrika Gibson explains. She brings further attention to the power of present moment non-judgmental awareness, stating that the “imagined catastrophic future isn’t here and now, nor is the suffering and hardship of the past. Each moment has the potential to be a moment of freedom, creating a space where healing can arise.”
Rather than resisting discomfort, yoga – a gentle low-intensity form of exercise – encourages the observation of mental and physical sensations. While Yoga includes a detailed philosophical underpinning, the practice of Yoga essentially cultivates the integration of meditation and mindfulness (Dhyana), controlled breathing (Pranayama) and physical postures (Asanas).
A study examined the effects of Pranayama alone –practice of breath control and regulation – on the emotional aspects among breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. The 6 week program consisted of 25-30 minute morning and evening sessions. Results found patients who practiced Pranayama alongside their radiation therapy reported lower levels of worry, frustration and anxiety, than those who were in the control group (i.e., only undergoing radiation therapy). Having learnt Pranayama techniques in yoga class, many people find they are able to work with their breath to consciously calm down in stressful times, Ms Gibson adds.
Though cancer survivors inevitably feel a sense of relief following cancer treatment, there is often a consequential challenge they then face. Some people report feeling abandoned, or more fearful when no longer held by the system of treatment and the regular interactions with skilled helpers and health professionals. The incidence of intrusive thoughts about fear of cancer recurrence (FCR) is often stimulated by external stimuli (e.g., follow-up appointments and new diagnosis in family or friends) or internal somatic symptoms (e.g., fatigue, muscle pain and insomnia).
A study, examining the efficacy of yoga on cancer survivors, reported improvements in psychological functioning; i.e., positive impact on mood, quality of life and stress. A modified version of hatha yoga was practised – commonly referred to as Yoga Therapy. As the 7-week program progressed, cancer survivors were supported to build on their practices adding more challenging or longer held versions of asanas (or postures). Incorporating mindfulness with the progression of movement and speed, survivors experienced measurable improvement in flexibility, strength and balance. Along with physical benefits, the style of yoga tested used practices designed to enhance a felt sense of ‘energy’ flowing. When excess muscular tension is released, the theory is that energy can flow more easily in the body and allow patients to experience a sense of well-being, and strength – a balance of body, mind and spirit.
The practice of yoga and improvements to psychological health can be attributed to an increased parasympathetic and decreased sympathetic nervous system activities. More specifically, the body’s natural physiological flight-or-fight response is replaced with the relaxation response. “Holding postures creates an intentional stressor for the body. Focusing on the breath including elongating the exhalation of breath, tells the nervous system we are safe and this stressor is welcome, which in turn rebalances and retrains the automatic nervous system to increase resilience to stress ”, Ms Gibson, who is currently undertaking a PhD, confirms.
There are many different practices of yoga; all of which are suited to individual needs, ability, health, circumstances, and goals. Chandrika, who has helped thousands of people manage their health, explains “when physical practices are not available, simple mantra, affirmation, pranayama, guided relaxation or counting techniques can help give patients a present-moment focal point”. She further emphasises “this state of equanimity flows into life off the mat too, making peace through acceptance of life’s sufferings and joys”.
Solaris Cancer Care currently offers yin yoga, gentle yoga and restorative yoga in Cottesloe and St John of God Subiaco weekly.
Genevieve’s fascination with the mind and its impact on human behavior led her to pursue a Bachelor of Psychology, at QUT, and then further continued to complete an honours degree, at University of Sunshine Coast. Genevieve envisions her future to embrace a career assisting adults in discovering the cause of psychological issues and in turn providing guidance to alleviate pain and suffering. When she’s not working full time, Genevieve can be found relaxing at a coffee shop, jogging along the boardwalk of the Brisbane River, partaking in an early morning yoga class, or simply reading a good novel with a cup of tea.