After Diane Fiebelkorn made it through breast cancer treatment, she rewarded herself -- and did something applauded by oncology professionals -- by signing up for a yoga class designed specifically for breast cancer patients.
"I knew yoga could really heal and make me feel strong again," said the Minnetonka resident. "Besides that, it's a treat for me."
Every Thursday, Fiebelkorn attends a class that modifies or emphasizes certain poses to help with post-treatment issues related to range of motion, tightness, soreness and strength. For breast cancer patients, parts of the body might be weaker because muscles were cut for reconstruction, or pectoral muscles might be unusable after surgery.
Therapeutic yoga classes created especially for cancer survivors can be hard to find, but that might be changing as studies continue to show the benefits. Oncology doctors and nurses are recommending yoga, and some area hospitals have offered classes on-site. Many participants are happy with the results.
Dr. Bibi Khoyratty, an oncologist with Minnesota Oncology, saw the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual turmoil many survivors were dealing with, so she started recommending yoga as a gentle way to address all those needs. Khoyratty helped Minnesota Oncology begin a pilot study this past summer to introduce yoga classes to cancer patients.
The classes were a hit, said Etta Erickson, director of business development for Minnesota Oncology, also known as MOHPA. Many survivors deal with fallout that isn't addressed by treatment, she said, including altered body image, fatigue, relationship difficulties and sexual issues.
"People loved learning how they can take charge of their own health," Erickson said. "It's so empowering for them to understand and to be with other people who are experiencing some of the same limitations after treatment."
Sometimes people with cancer or other life-changing diseases disassociate from their bodies because they feel their bodies betrayed them, said Maggie Kessell, who has taught yoga classes to cancer survivors and is founder of Riverbend Yoga Studio.
"Yoga means union, it's about welcoming that body back, honoring that body, loving that body," she said. "Yoga therapy helps the whole person heal."
Cancer and the fear of its return can lead to anxiety, so certain poses and breathing exercises are emphasized to calm the mind and body, Kessell said. Another component of yoga, meditation, allows people time to reconnect with themselves and reflect. Visualization techniques focus on imagining healing energy in and around the body. Some classes include a support group, with time set aside for checking in and talking.
Back in Fiebelkorn's class, Lura Shopteau, instructor and founder of Yoga Restoration, explained how certain poses will improve range of motion, flexibility and strength where her students need it most. The women stretch their ribcages, get their lymph system pumping and strengthen shoulder and underarm muscles. Shopteau also told her students why she's modifying other poses based on limitations they might have after treatment or surgery.
"Yoga is a practice of self-acceptance, and you start where you are," Shopteau said. "It's also about learning to have compassion for yourself and your situation." She believes strongly in yoga's power to heal on many levels and expects yoga therapy to rise in popularity and availability. But as it does, she added a note of caution: Check instructors' backgrounds to ensure that they're truly qualified for specialized classes.
Another student in Shopteau's class, Margaret Knudsen, had tried a regular yoga class at her gym. "There were times when I'd just sit there because I knew they were working on pec muscles, which I just can't do," she said. Through classes at Yoga Restoration, Knudsen built the strength to go tubing on a lake last summer. And in addition to feeling stronger and more limber, the classes provide a supportive environment. "You just feel good all over," she said. "And I think that the only way to recover is to have a feeling of wholeness."
Sarah Moran is a Minneapolis-based health writer.