Breast Cancer and Wellness: Yoga

Vicky fox teaching yoga for breast cancer

Yoga is something that I have personally never practiced regularly. I have done the odd session and really enjoyed it, but it is not a part of my routine. I have read a lot about the benefits yoga has for those living with or beyond a breast cancer diagnosis, and those who have entered the menopause. Since having my ovaries removed and entering an early menopause, I do feel drawn to it. This is why I am so keen to start practicing regularly, but I am not too sure where to begin.  

To help get me started I asked the incredible Vicky Fox some questions. Vicky is a yoga teacher and trainer who has been teaching ‘yoga for cancer’ classes for a decade. She wrote the books “Yoga For Cancer, A-Z of C” and “Time To Repair”which focus on how yoga can help the body to heal after illness. Vicky holds free weekly yoga classes for those impacted by breast cancer at Future Dreams House and is an absolutely beautiful soul if you have ever had the pleasure of being in her company. I’m really grateful to Vicky for taking the time to chat to me. 

How did you get into yoga for cancer?

I trained as a yoga teacher 15 years ago and learning about how the body repairs and heals after injury interested me. I wanted to give back to those that could benefit from yoga. I found a teacher from America who taught yoga for cancer survivors. I trained with her and started giving classes at a cancer centre. I then started conversations with Tri Yoga. I knew that being diagnosed with cancer can carry a financial consequence and I really wanted my classes to be accessible to everyone. Anyone that has ever heard the words “you’ve got cancer”, there would be a class for. For everyone whether you’ve had a recent diagnosis or been years in remission.  

The classes can now be in a studio or online so we can accommodate as many needs as I can. The classes are gentle, so if you join and feel really fatigued and can’t make the whole class that is totally ok. I always say, don’t leave and do what you can. If you need to go into the relaxation pose at any point just stay with the breathing. The breathing is the quickest way to change your nervous system. If you are in fight or flight then you are not breathing fully, but erratically. That is the biggest difference between legs, bums and tums and yoga. The breathing calms the nervous system, bringing it back to a place of repair. Yoga with breath work builds muscle strength. It is a class that is meant to challenge, but not deplete. If you can keep the same relaxing breath throughout the whole class this is where the restoration and repair happens. The nervous system is being told it is safe, and it is in a yoga class.  

What are the benefits for those in treatment or that have had surgery?  

If you’ve had surgery or lymph nodes removedyou want to help to stimulate the lymphatic system. This system doesn’t have a heart to pump it around like the cardiovascular system does. The lymphatic system clears out dead cells and removes what the body doesn’t need. It relies on muscle contractions, change in pressure through movement, gravity and diaphragmatic breathing. Yoga helps with the moving of the lymphatic system especially if you do not have as many lymph nodes. If you have scar tissue, it can act as a gate to the system too. So, it is really important to stretch and open up the area if it is feeling tight. My mission is to get people to move and get their full range of movement back. It can be really frightening after surgery. People can be really scared of lymphoedema, so it is important to build strength back slowly, opening up the body and aiming for full range of movement.  

Click here if you would like to read more about mastectomy and reconstruction or lumpectomy surgery.

Some treatment for cancer can weaken your bones leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis, so it is important that you move in a safe way. Yoga is good for your bones, by strengthening the muscles it can strengthen the bones. We also want to move in a way that doesn’t increase the risk of fractures to the bones, specifically looking at forward folding and twisting in a safe way. A good yoga class should be empowering, as you can learn so much about how yoga can help to alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment 

Many people are not given enough information about their lymphatic systems. For instance, a simple action, such as raising your arm above your head and opening and closing your hand, can active  the muscles in the forearms and promotes lymphatic flow. The NHS is incredibly stretched and people can feel like they can’t ask these important questions. I often hear patients say that they feel so grateful they are alive that they don’t want to bother anyone with questions about their side effects. Somany don’t talk about them but there is so much we can do to help manage side effects. One woman told me that after doing a yoga class her lymphoedema felt light for 48 hours afterwards. Movement helps people. It gives them tools. I also always say that the student is my best teacher. Everyone is unique and knows themselves best.  

Yoga can also help with neuropathy as it opens up the connective tissue to help the nerves move through the fascia of the body and there are more and more studies now on the benefits of yoga for people impacted and living with cancer. 

Is it safe to start yoga with no experience after a breast cancer diagnosis? 

With a knowledgeable teacher who understands what you are going through, then absolutely. For instance, if you have had DIEP flap surgery, a teacher would need to have knowledge of this surgery. This type of surgery impacts two separate areas, so it is important to know how you can adjust moves to build up strength again. A good teacher will understand that you need to take baby steps, and that you might be incredibly fatigued. They will understand this is the type of fatigue that is not helped by a good night’s sleep too. They will tailor the class for you. So, it is important that you seek out a teacher that can support you and help you to do things that can build up your strength slowly. After surgery you can’t lift anything heavy, so you need to build slowly and get arm strength up slowly and listen to your body.

Can yoga help manage symptoms and side effects of breast cancer and the menopause?  

Absolutely. Certain breathing techniques can be very cooling for the menopause. You breathe in through a circled mouth (as if you were sipping in through a straw) and then breathe out through the nose. This breathing starts to cool the mouth and you can breathe out any heat from the body through the nose. You can then sense that cooling moving down through your body as you take these breaths. Yoga is also a type of strength training. There is lots of evidence that says that menopausal women should lift weights to help with their bones. Most bone health is measured using bone density, but you can’t measure bone quality. Bones are malleable. Around the bones you have ligaments, tendons, connective tissue and muscle. If those are strong that makes good bone quality, but we don’t have a way to measure this yet 

There are also ways to help build bone strength with yoga, such as balancing poses which put pressure on the bones in a different position which in turn builds bone strength. Other huge things that yoga can help with are anxiety and trouble sleeping. Both known to be impacted by the menopause. Introducing breathing techniques and teaching people how to relax the body and carry out body scans can really help to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality.   

OWise the breast cancer support app screenYou can track your symptoms and side effects of breast cancer and the menopause in the OWise app. Track over 30 different side effects and visualise how your trends change over time. You can even share your trends directly with your care team.

What tips do you have for a total beginner?

My top tips would be:  

  • Turn up with loose clothing so that you can move around comfortably.  
  • Find a knowledgeable, experienced teacher who has an understanding of what you have been through and is prepared to take things slowly.  
  • Don’t feel that you have to hold the poses for long periods of timeGo at your own pace and listen to your body. 
  • If it doesn’t feel right, ease out of the pose.  
  • Watch your breathing, as if it doesn’t feel right your breathing will tell you so much.  
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • The teacher is only your guide. You are the best teacher in the room. You know what it is like to be you.  

I always end my class with the Serenity Prayer. May our yoga grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change, the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I really believe that when you are impacted by cancer, a lot of the time you want to change it and it can be a real challenge to accept it. But accepting it will free up your energy. Take fatigue for instance, if you are trying to fight the fatigue then that is a lot of energy being used and wasted. You need that energy to live in the moment right now.  

If you have never done yoga before then arrive with an open mind. It is a mindfulness practice to learn how to use your breath to stay present. Our minds can have a natural negative bias, they are always looking for danger. They have to wander. It is a safety mechanism to be alert to fear. What yoga teaches us is to observe the thought, notice it, say to yourself “that’s interesting” and come back to the breathing. The only thing in our control is our current thought and that can be focused on breathing. There is not a single person in the world who doesn’t have thoughts. And when you are impacted by cancer a lot of those thoughts might be fearful and overwhelming. However, worrying is projecting fearfully into an imaginary future. Breathing and mindfulness frees us from all of that. This takes practice and work in progress is key, and that’s an exciting thing! Who knows what the future holds. I hope we will keep growing and learning.  

A beginners mind and an open heart makes everything new and exciting and stops us from sleep walking through life. A lot of people impacted by cancer say to me that they have woken up and have a new found appreciation of life. I always include a gratitude practice – even when times are toughwe can find something to be grateful for, and if you can’t find anything then you can be grateful to yourself for showing up at class today.  

To see the benefits how often do you recommend practicing?  

Even if you do one class a week you will get the benefits. What I try to do is teach my students things they can do themselves. Breathing practices on the bus. Meditation doesn’t have to be in a dark room on a special cushion. The more you do the more of a benefit you will get. And if you enjoy it, the more you want to come back. Practicing 2 – 3 times a week would be ideal.  

Finally, I’m very happy for anyone to contact me if they would like to get started. Also, If you are going to another class I’m really happy for you or your teacher to get in touch with me for advice.  

Vicky can be contacted through her website  or her Instagram @yogaforcancer 

Thank you so much to Vicky for making yoga so accessible for anyone with a cancer diagnosis, enabling everyone to reap it’s many benefits.  

Written by Carly Moosah

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