On a recent Monday, Kimberly Manns worked late and missed her weekly yoga class for cancer patients at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
It made a bad day worse.
“I missed this one thing that always leaves me feeling better,” Manns said.
For Manns, 46, the yoga class has been a godsend since her breast cancer diagnosis in January. During a year of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, pain and uncertainty, it has brought her peace, relaxation and camaraderie.
Manns take solace in the class, which focuses on deep breathing, gentle stretching and guided meditation. After class, participants often stay to talk and encourage one another.
‘Yoga is medicine’
Class leaders Nanette Bowen and Denise Karsen of Breathe Ayurveda & Yoga created the class to be just that—a retreat designed to alleviate stress and promote healing. Paid for with a grant from the Spectrum Health Foundation, the class is free to participants. There is a class on Monday nights at 5:30 for patients undergoing cancer treatment and a class on Wednesday nights at 5:30 for patients in recovery.
As research continues to show the health benefits of yoga, more classes like this are popping up in cancer treatment facilities across the country.
“I think yoga is medicine. It’s a type of preventive medicine,” said Bowen, who also works as a physician assistant. “We do a good job of taking care of people who are sick, but I think this part is key. Science is catching up with what we know is good for us.”
Bowen and Karsen, both certified yoga instructors, teamed up with Gerri Roobol, director of cancer services for the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, to offer the class.
“In cancer care, we are getting better and better at addressing the needs of the whole person,” Roobol said. “We know that a cancer diagnosis, and then the rigors of various treatments is a huge stressor in someone’s life. Yoga can really help to lower that level of stress.”
In addition to the yoga classes, Spectrum Health offers music therapy, acupuncture and massage therapy to cancer patients, Roobol said. There is also an exercise class for patients with lymphedema, a condition some patients develop as a result of treatment-related removal or damage to their lymph nodes.
Roobol said that while some patients undergoing cancer treatment may not feel they can also attend the yoga class, those who have done it have praised it.
“There are so many benefits yoga brings,” she said.
One study from Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, studied yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood and fatigue in 200 breast cancer survivors. Participants were either assigned to 12 weeks of 90-minute yoga classes twice per week or a control group.
Results showed the yoga participants experienced less fatigue, increased vitality and decreased inflammation, noting that chronic inflammation may cause declines in physical function, leading to frailty or disability.
‘A safe place to be’
Both yoga classes start with centering, which leads participants in a short meditation and encourages them to focus on deep breathing. They then move into gentle yoga postures—nothing strenuous—which help with common side effects from cancer treatment, Bowen said. They end with restorative movements to quiet pain.
Bowen and Karsen stress that the class is not meant to tax people’s bodies. They have chairs to balance or sit on, as well as blankets, bolsters and blocks to help participants get comfortable.
“We will make whatever arrangements they need to be comfortable,” Karsen said.
Bowen added that sometimes simply breathing is enough to experience the power of yoga.
“Breath work is integral to the practice of yoga,” she said. “Breath itself is yoga. You can do this.”
Class sizes are kept small (it’s currently a maximum of 12) so instructors can work individually with patients.
After class, participants have time to talk and bond over their shared experiences.
“We can spend almost as much time after class talking and sharing,” Karsen said. “It’s really a safe place to be.”
Manns said the class is an additional support system.
“It’s been another place where I could meet other women who were going through chemotherapy and the effects of chemotherapy,” she said. “By the end of class, I always leave feeling better than when I walked in the door.”
She recalls one class participant who showed up to the class for her second time. “She was so happy that after the first night, she had her first good night’s sleep in a long time. That’s what keeps us coming back.”
Prior to her cancer diagnosis and treatment, this Kent County prosecuting attorney had never done yoga before, but now’s she a believer.
“I really hope more people find out about it and take advantage of it,” Manns said.