An ancient mind-body practice combining movement and stretches with meditation, yoga is used to manage symptoms and side effects and body terrain imbalances common in cancer.

How can yoga help me? What the research says

We summarize the clinical evidence for each medical benefit here. We begin with our assessment of the strength of evidence within each category, followed by a brief summary of individual studies or reviews of several studies. In assessing the strength of evidence, we consider the study design, number of participants, and the size of the treatment effect (how much outcomes changed with treatment).

Learn more about how we research and rate therapies.

Treating cancer

Is yoga linked to improved survival? Is it linked to less cancer growth or metastasis? Does it enhance the anticancer action of other treatments or therapies? We present the evidence.

As with other mind-body approachesapproaches that enhance your mind’s capacity to positively affect your body’s function and symptoms. Some interventions focus on calming your mind, improving focus, enhancing decision-making capacity, managing stress, or resolving conflict. Other interventions have a goal of relaxing both your mind and your body., assessing the effectiveness of yoga in addressing cancer symptoms can be challenging. Creating controls and placebo conditions is difficult.1Ruddy KJ, Stan DL, Bhagra A, Jurisson M, Cheville AL. Alternative exercise traditions in cancer rehabilitation. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. 2017 Feb;28(1):181-192. However, because the risk of harm from yoga is relatively small, many oncology professionals are comfortable recommending it for people with cancer.

Breast cancer

No evidence of an effectoverall, one or more studies did not demonstrate that a treatment or intervention led to an expected outcome; this does not always mean that there is no effect in clinical practice, but that the studies may have been underpowered (too few participants) or poorly designed. Larger, well-designed studies provide more confidence in making assessments. on a measure of cell health among people with breast cancer practicing Hatha yoga

Optimizing your body terrain

Does yoga promote an environment within your body that is less supportive of cancer development, growth, or spread? We present the evidence.

Body weight

Good evidencesignificant effects in one large or several mid-sized and well-designed clinical studies (randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with an appropriate placebo or other strong comparison control or observational studies that control for confounds) (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of better body weight and waist circumference among people practicing yoga

Blood sugar and insulin imbalance

Modest evidencesignificant effects in at least three small but well-designed randomized controlled trials (RCTs), or one or more well-designed, mid-sized clinical studies of reasonably good quality (RCTs or observational studies), or several small studies aggregated into a meta-analysis (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of better markers of blood sugar and insulin balance among people practicing yoga, mostly among people with prediabetes, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome

Genetic damage

Preliminary evidencesignificant effects in small or poorly designed clinical studies OR conflicting results in adequate studies but a preponderance of evidence of an effect (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of slightly less DNA damage during radiotherapy among people with breast cancer participating in yoga

Hormone imbalance

Preliminary evidence of better cortisol levels among people with breast cancer participating in yoga

Modest evidence of better cortisol levels among healthy adults or with conditions other than cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of better levels of follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, adrenalin, or serotonin among people practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of lower cortisol levels among people participating in laughter yoga

Immune function

Preliminary evidence of better markers of immune function among people with cancer or healthy adults practicing yoga

Inflammation

Modest evidence of lower inflammation among people with cancer practicing yoga

Oxidation

Modest evidence of lower markers of oxidationa process in which molecules combine with oxygen or lose electrons; losing an electron creates unstable free radicals that can damage cells, causing illness and aging among healthy people or  people with diabetes, pre-diabetes, or metabolic syndrome participating in yoga

Yoga as part of combination treatment

Mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga: preliminary evidence of better daily cortisol rhythms among people with breast cancer participating in mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga

Managing side effects and promoting wellness

Is yoga linked to fewer or less severe side effects or symptoms? Is it linked to less toxicity from cancer treatment? Does it support your quality of life or promote general well-being? We present the evidence.

Anxiety

Good evidencesignificant effects in one large or several mid-sized and well-designed clinical studies (randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with an appropriate placebo or other strong comparison control or observational studies that control for confounds) (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of less anxiety, usually only for a short time after practice, among people with cancer practicing yoga

Breathing difficulties

Weak evidenceone or more case studies, supported by animal evidence OR small treatment effects of limited clinical significance OR studies with no controls OR weak trends of effects (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of less breathlessness during therapy among women with breast cancer participating in Iyengar yoga

Weak evidence of no increase in breathlessness among people with non-small cell lung cancer participating in a special 8-week standardized yoga protocol; increased breathlessness with physical activity is a concern for people with lung cancer, and this protocol allows people to participate in yoga without causing breathlessness

Changes in appetite

Weak evidence of better appetite among people with cancer or caregivers participating in yoga

Cognitive difficulties

Modest evidence of fewer cognitive difficulties among people with cancer practicing yoga

Depression or mood

Good evidence of less depression among people with cancer practicing yoga

Fatigue

Good evidence of less cancer-related fatigue among people practicing yoga

Gastrointestinal symptoms

Modest evidence of fewer treatment-related gastrointestinal symptoms among people practicing yoga

Lymphedema

Weak evidence of fewer breast cancer-related lymphedema symptoms among people with cancer practicing yoga

Neurological symptoms

Weak evidence of less neurotoxicity among people with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) practicing yoga

Pain

Modest evidence of less pain among people with cancer practicing yoga

Quality of life or function

Good evidence of better quality of life among people with cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of better quality of life scores among women with breast cancer-related lymphedema practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of higher quality of life during radiotherapy among people with cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of better general health, quality of life, role functioning and social functioning after breast cancer surgery among women practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of better range of motion, reach, strength, or arm symptoms—including after surgery or among people with peripheral neuropathy—among people with cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of a higher rate of return to work 6 months after starting chemotherapy among people with breast cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of beneficial changes in meridian energy—the qi energy that travels along the meridian pathways in the body—among people with breast cancer participating in yoga

Weak evidence of better quality of life (mental component score) among caregivers for people with cancer practicing Vinyasa yoga

Sexual difficulties

Preliminary evidence of better sexual health scores during external beam radiation therapy among people with prostate cancer practicing yoga

Sleep disruption

Good evidence of less sleep disruption among people with cancer practicing yoga

Stress or distress

Good evidence of less psychological stress or distress among people with cancer practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of less stress before chemotherapy among people with cancer participating in laughter yoga

Weak evidence of less psychological distress among caregivers for people with cancer practicing Vinyasa yoga

Yoga as part of combination treatment

Yoga and mindfulness meditation, sometimes with other therapies: preliminary evidence of less depression, fatigue, pain, stress, and sleep disturbance, fewer hot flashes, and better quality of life and cognitive function among people with cancer practicing yoga

Laughter yoga and comedy performance: preliminary evidence of better cognitive function and less pain for a short time among people with cancer participating in laughter therapy sessions

Breathe Easier, a program encompassing meditation, two levels of mindful Hatha yoga, breathing exercises, and participant interaction: weak evidence of better exercise capacity, improved sleep and stress scores among people with non-small-cell lung cancer practicing Breathe Easier

Insufficient (conflicting) evidencepreclinical evidence only OR clinical studies with such poor or unclear methodology that no conclusion can be drawn OR conflicting findings across clinical studies with no preponderance of evidence in one direction; conflicting evidence occurs when studies find conflicting effects (positive effect vs no effect or negative effect) with the same treatment and the same general study population (same cancer type, for example) (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of an effect on breathlessness or fatigue

Pelvic floor muscle training with counseling and yoga or core exercises: modest evidence of better sexual function and health-related quality of life among people with cervical cancer participating in pelvic floor muscle training with counseling and yoga or core exercises

Symptoms not specific to cancer

These symptoms are common among people with cancer, but these studies did not investigate the symptoms exclusively among people with cancer

Good evidence of lower hot flash severity among peri- or post-menopausal women practicing yoga

Good evidence of better blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate among people practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of less constipation among elderly people (aged 60 to 75) practicing yoga

Preliminary evidence of less psychological stress or depression, better sleep, and better quality of life among people practicing yoga

Resources

Keep reading about yoga

Authors

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Last update: June 6, 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

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