Y the C word? Using yoga therapy to help patients with cancer

Come on, Spas: be kinder to cancer patients’ is the headline of an article written by Susan d’Arcy in the Sunday Times (28/8/16). She writes that it is shocking that a recent survey of 97% of UK spas and salons would refuse to treat someone diagnosed ill with cancer to a massage.

In contradiction to this, Dr. Peter Mackereth and his team at the Internationally known Christie NHS Foundation Trust (Manchester) created a 2 day spa and cancer practitioner programme over 15 years ago.
The NHS estimates that more than one in two Britons will develop some form of Cancer.
Spas will often treat those in remission and accept a medical doctor’s referral letter, but many apply an apologetic ‘no can do’ policy. A fantastic initiative of yet another inspired woman, Michelle Hammond (founder of the Spa Business school) has established a charity called The Power of Touch (tpot.org.uk) .

I am applying to this charity as a trainer, volunteering five days a year in the nationwide roll out of workshops and a teaching format for practitioners of massage that the charity uses. Watch this space in 2017.

Massage therapists have been unwittingly replicating the fear of those with cancer – that something bad will happen. That damage will occur. We are literally and symbolically in touch with death. Psychodynamically and within a culture of litigation, therapists unconsciously retreat behind anxiety about what could happen so they can protect their business, health and livelihood.
What risk of contamination is there in helping the diseased? It may not be that we ‘catch’ something unpleasant or destructive as therapists, but that we are ‘caught’ as lacking or destructive.

The NICE guidelines for Complementary Oncology include massage, hot stones and manual lymphatic drainage- but it is important to note that in 2016 The All Party Group for Indian Traditional Sciences (PGITS) met for a second time at Westminster Parliament in early May to discuss and protest that Complementary Therapy Services would NOT be removed from NICE guidelines. The likely outcome of this situation is uncertain, as is living with a cancer diagnosis or being in remission.

The best yoga practices for patients in treatment for cancer are simple. When you are stressed, bringing focussed awareness to your breathing is fundamental. In yoga, there are many opportunities for learning to breathe with consciousness. Pranayama is the name given to the practices of breathing with consciousness and influence and focus. It can be useful in a waiting room, during treatment, in transit after treatment or in a hospital bed.

Psychologically, we could think of breath as being an exchange not only of gases but of bringing in the new and releasing that which needs to be expelled. The act of inspiration can indeed inspire and move us to go into ourselves and beyond ourselves, into the environment. During exhalation,we can choose to consciously release any unnecessary tension and as I often say, “let go of that which is no longer as useful.”
Stressful situations usually make us hold the breath. When in treatment, or anticipating turning up at the hospital for tests and intervention, the breath can become more shallow and rapid. Breathing intentionally brings spaciousness into the body at a time when anxiety and fear constricts and restricts. It costs nothing and can be helpful to us anywhere and at times of distress and unease.
Although it seems unnecessary to pay attention to a process that is happening without our effort, there are multiple benefits for doing this.

Breathing between 10 and 14 times a minute, we inhale and exhale. The body does this as a natural function regulated from centres in the medulla and pons of the lower brain. Prana is thought of as the basic energy of life. Remember how a baby is observed for that first cry outside of the uterus or stimulated to take that primary breath? The body breathes.

Have you watched a baby breathe? Their abdominal and thoracic chambers are visible and actively working. In adults we may need some help to come back into respect of the importance of our own body breathing more efficiently at a time when viability is threatened. Breathing is a matter of life and death symbolically if not in actuality when hooked up to a respirator.
Breathing as if into the belly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and regulating. The outbreath is linked with relaxation and purification. The in breath tonifies and enhances the energising quality.

Learning how to breathe with intention can include deep abdominal breathing and exploring the rhythm and flow of the breath. This can also be paired with imagery.

There are guided visualisations which can be general or specific to people in treatment and post surgery from cancers. One yogic principle of ahimsa (non harming) is helpful as a meditation during the receiving of chemotherapy. It can be conflictual for someone to willingly accept a poison into their blood stream even as it is understood to have a function of prolonging life. Similarly, in radiation therapy, the yoga practice of sense withdrawal (pratyahara) can reduce the inherent tension of being subject to something we understand to be harmful and yet necessary. In EMDR there are various ideas when it comes to pain relief (similarly with NLP and clinical hypnotherapy) that can enable the person to not identify with the pain and learn how to relate to it and self regulate. Christie NHS UK Integrative Therapies Training Unit runs a variety of courses for complementary practitioners although yoga isn’t on the prospectus.

Movement practices called asana can also help relieve joint pain and muscle aches that may be a side effect of treatment medication. The integration of restorative poses and sangha which is community are enabling both for activity and rest.

Dr. Dean Ornish in the USA is known for his work using a comprehensive lifestyle programme that included yoga for people with heart disease and prostate cancer. Increasingly there will be more medics who can incite interest in researching the holistic approach, and as drugs are expensive and supply is known to be a postcode lottery, a crisis in the system could become opportunity.

In yoga practice, health is considered as an important side effect! In times of illness, the consequence of immense stress and challenge to all that is known and believed is disorienting and distressing. Yoga practice can become particularly relevant as it is not religious and may lead and support spiritual practice. Reading the biography of those who have been ill with cancer we can read of insights gained and a change in the perspective of interconnectedness of living and forms of life.

A yoga ‘session’ may be on a chair, or standing, or in a bed or on the floor. Wherever the person is in space and wherever the person is in their internal state, yoga offers a place of acceptance for the non serene, the angry, the depressed, the fearful, the helpless and hopeless and those fatigued.

Having been a senior staff counsellor in a large mental health NHS Trust for ten years, I am intrigued to know what will happen with Yoga4NHS . This collaborative organisation of leaders and teachers of yoga within the community and healthcare professions has submitted a proposal for piloting yoga within the NHS for staff. In part this is designed to encourage staff wellbeing and perhaps combat obesity in the workforce indirectly, but it could also identify how yoga in practical participation and philosophy can be implemented for patients in hospitals and communities.

Find out more about our yoga therapies.

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