Yoga During Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer: A Featured Publication

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and will be undergoing radiation therapy, regular yoga during radiation treatment may be beneficial for you!

Today I’m discussing the results of a randomized trial done at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (1).

163 women with stage 0-III breast cancer participated and were put into one of three treatment groups: yoga, stretching or “waitlist” (no yoga or stretching.)

The yoga program required 3 60-minute classes per week during their 6 weeks of radiation therapy that included:

(1) preparatory warm-up synchronized with breathing;

(2) selected postures, or asana (forward-, backward-, and side-bending asanas in sitting and standing position, cobra posture, crocodile, and half-shoulder-stand with support); 

(3) deep relaxation (supine posture); 

(4) alternate-nostril breathing, or pranayama; and

(5) meditation.

The stretching program included standing, lying down, and sitting positions that were similar to the physical movements in the yoga exercises (eg, horizontal arm stretch, breast stroke, neck stretch, quarterback throwing a football), but without the mindfulness and directed breathing components.

The waitlist group was observed without any exercise or mindfulness intervention. 

The study assessed differences between the 3 groups at the end of radiation treatment and 1, 3 and 6 months after treatment.

They evaluated general quality of life, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and cortisol levels (a stress hormone).

They found that quality of life was improved for the patients who practiced yoga/meditation compared to the waitlist group at 1 and 3 months post treatment. 

Patients who did yoga or stretching also had less radiation induced fatigue by the end of treatment.

They also measured cortisol levels in the patients at various time points throughout the day. (Cortisol is a hormone that is involved in the stress response.) The “steeper” the downward decline in cortisol levels from morning to evening, the better the body is regulating the stress response.

The study showed that the yoga participants had steeper cortisol curves at the end of RT and one month later compared to the waitlist group.

In other words, the yoga participant’s bodies had better stress regulation.

This may even have implications for survival. Several other studies have shown that a blunted (flatter, less steep) cortisol response is associated with tumor progression and decreased survival.

In sum…

Doing yoga/meditation during radiation therapy improves… 

quality of life


and the stress response.

It is generally believed that daily practice is best, but this study shows that at least 3 times per week for 60 minutes is beneficial too.

If you are going through radiation for breast cancer, you may also find this meditation I lead this morning entitled “Meditation for Fatigue” to be helpful.