Contributed by Reader, Jenni Hesketh
Discovering you have a health problem that is potentially life-limiting is unsettling and can come as a real shock if you still feel in relatively good health. The first weeks and months after your diagnosis are a difficult time as you come to terms with the news and you may well look for ways to take your mind off the worries and uncertainties that go with your condition. However, yoga offers more than just a welcome distraction; taking part in yoga can also reduce some of the symptoms associated with serious health problems such as cancer and HIV.
Reducing cancer-related pain
Although not everyone with cancer suffers from pain, it is more common in advanced stages of the disease. Cancer treatments may leave you with temporary pain, but removal or shrinkage of your tumor usually offers pain relief. Additionally, you will have access to painkillers to help you manage your discomfort and alternatives forms of pain relief, such as TENS and acupuncture, are also helpful. However, there is also evidence that yoga is a suitable therapy for relieving cancer-related pain. For instance, women who underwent surgery for breast cancer and then received an hour of yoga for 12 weeks benefited from reduced pain scores . The ability of yoga to reduce muscular tension may in part explain these findings, but as exercise increases production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers, this may be another mechanism through which yoga may act.
It is natural to feel low when you hear that your life may change for the worse and that you may well have a shorter lifespan. A low mood can, however, adversely impact on your physical health and make symptoms like pain worse, so finding ways to lift your spirits is important. While you may ask your doctor about antidepressants, these have potentially unpleasant side-effects and if you already feel anxious or suffer from insomnia or digestive upset, you may find your other symptoms worsen on antidepressants . Thankfully, there are other options to manage low mood, and yoga is an alternative therapy you may like to try to brighten your mood. Indeed, research again shows that yoga is an effective way to improve mental wellness among women with breast cancer, helping to promote better quality of life and enhanced emotional well-being . While much of the work into the benefits of yoga focus on breast cancer, it is likely that if you have an alternative type of cancer or suffer from another serious health problem, you will still have much to gain by taking part.
You are bound to worry about what the future holds for you given your diagnosis, but as with low mood, worrying may take its toll on your health. For example, stress can impair your immune system and if you have a condition that affects your immune function, such as HIV, this is particularly unwanted. Although trying not to worry is not that easy, finding out as much as you can about your health problem and seeking support from those close to you can help to relieve some of the tension . Using techniques to help you relax is also a good idea, which is where yoga comes in. In fact, the research shows that not only can yoga help to reduce stress, but this appears to have a direct positive effect on immune function . Therefore if you have a compromised immune function, perhaps due to HIV or after undergoing chemotherapy, you should strongly consider taking part in yoga.
With a serious diagnosis, there are a range of reasons why you may struggle to sleep well at night. Worry, low mood, pain and medications can all interfere with sleep, and sleep disturbances are a characteristic of certain conditions that affect the nervous system . While sleeping pills may offer welcome relief from sleepless nights, you shouldn’t forget some of the natural alternatives that may aid sleep. Unwinding before bed is especially important, as unhelpful thoughts and tension are a common cause of sleeplessness. By helping you to relax, yoga can promote a better night’s sleep, but yoga can also relieve some of the other symptoms associated with a serious health problem related to insomnia. For instance, research shows that in conditions associated with pain, taking part in a yoga class weekly and then nightly at home can improve sleep . Practicing yoga may therefore help two-fold with sleeplessness.
 Monisha Sudarshan et al, “Yoga therapy for breast cancer patients,” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 19(2013):227, http://www.ctcpjournal.com/article/S1744-3881%2813%2900043-1/abstract
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 Sarika Arora & Jayashree Bhattacharjee, “Modulation of immune responses in stress by yoga,” International Journal of Yoga, 1(2008):45, http://www.ijoy.org.in/article.asp?issn=0973-6131;year=2008;volume=1;issue=2;spage=45;epage=55;aulast=Arora
 “Coming to terms with HIV,” STD Panels, http://www.stdpanels.com/coping-with-hiv-diagnosis/
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Diana Taibi & Michael Vitellio, A pilot study of gentle yoga for sleep disturbance in women with osteoarthritis,” Sleep Medicine, 12(2011):512, http://www.sleep-journal.com/article/S1389-9457%2811%2900092-X/abstract