Surviving or thriving? Yoga therapy and the cancer journey

By Robyn Tiger

As a physician, I spent many years in diagnostic radiology. My job was to help clinicians identify what was causing their patients’ symptoms, and unfortunately we sometimes discovered cancer. Although patients were incredibly grateful that I had “saved their lives,” I observed their subsequent suffering and negative transformations.

I realized that a large portion of patient care was missing: How do we help patients to truly heal? I was completely lost as to how to be of further service. I knew that my job as a doctor was not nearly complete—simply diagnosing cancer was not enough. Through medical research, I eventually found my answer to fill this void in patient care: yoga therapy.

Specialized yoga and meditation practices have been shown to diminish many side-effects of cancer therapies during and after treatment. These practices can improve sleep, fatigue, digestion, balance, tension, fear and anxiety, and self-esteem. Mind-body practices like yoga also decrease stress hormones, inflammation, and neuropathy, and they may even protect lifespan—all components of overall improvement in well-being.

I see the cancer journey as divided into three continuous chapters. Yoga therapy has a place in each chapter, especially the third, which is frequently the most challenging.

Chapter 1: Diagnosis

From the moment a patient hears, “You have cancer,” their lives are forever changed. Questions, fears, and concerns fill their thoughts—and their bodies and spirits. Life as they know it comes to a standstill.

Chapter 2: Treatment

The rush to cure begins. Treatment plans are created and put into action as soon as possible. Now it’s full-steam ahead, with a multitude of appointments and additional testing, followed by treatment itself, which often involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Although wonderful for treating the cancer, these state-of-the-art treatments frequently result in a host of symptoms that affect the entire human system and lead to physical limitations, emotional distress, and dampened spirit.

Chapter 3: Recovery

After treatment, cancer survivors are released, free to go on with their lives and no longer under the watch of their medical teams. But instead of moving forward, carefree, the opposite often occurs. The stress response may reach its highest peak of the journey. Patients desperately want to be in control and take action to make changes for a healthier life, but they just don’t know how.

I am frequently asked by oncology patients and healthcare providers when yoga therapy should begin. My answer is immediately after diagnosis, during Chapter 1 of the journey. Right away, cancer survivors can learn how to process what is happening and be ready for whatever may come, to truly thrive. It is very common for me to hear, “I wish I had started yoga therapy sooner…”

Are you or someone you love on the cancer journey and ready to take the next step for a more complete, healthy, and fulfilling life? Whether it be through a group yoga therapy class, private session, or retreat, it’s time to take an active role in your journey to healing!

As Glinda says in The Wizard of Oz, “You had the power all along, my dear!”

Robyn Tiger, MD, C-IAYT, RYT-500, is a physician, IAYT-certified yoga therapist, researcher, and founder of Yoga Heals 4 Life. She serves those touched by trauma, anxiety, stress-related disorders, and cancer, integrating Western and Eastern philosophies for complete physical, mental, and emotional well-being.


Read more from the blog:

Top 5 benefits of yoga therapy for cancer care

Helping kids with cancer stay active: Yoga in pediatric oncology

And learn about a yoga therapist’s own cancer journey here:

What is yoga therapy? Lessons from my experience with cancer

and here:

Filling the gaps after cancer treatment: Patient empowerment through yoga therapy