Despite the fact that psychosocial issues are an integral part of the cancer experience, it was only in the 1950s and 1960s of the last century that they began to be acknowledged and dealt with in a meaningful way.
Within the medical field, the first professionals to publish papers on patients’ reactions to mastectomy and colostomy operations were a group of psychiatrists under the leadership of Dr. Sutherland at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York in the 1950s. Even though, subsequently, medical oncologists, especially pediatric oncologists, began to take an interest in psychological concerns, it was professionals from the behavioral and mental health disciplines, nurses and social workers who devoted the greater part of their time and energy to this effort.
Research studies began to map the emotional responses that a diagnosis of cancer evokes: shock, denial, blame, guilt, anger and fear. They further confirmed that it was healthier to acknowledge and experience these emotions rather than keep them bottled up within. Over time, not only did this lead to the emergence of the specialty of psycho-oncology, but oncology centres in the West also began to design programmes to help people with cancer and their families to better cope with the aftermath of cancer. These included setting up peer support groups, offering one- on- one counseling, and teaching relaxation techniques based on yogic practices: asanas, pranayama, self awareness, visualization and meditation.
When I was under treatment for my cancer at the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) in Toronto, Canada, in 1986, these programmes were just emerging and were presented as a helpful adjunct to treatment. Today, they are considered an integral part of treatment and seen as necessary to not only regain a sense of wellbeing but also ensure long-term survival.
Dr. Alistair Cunningham, a senior scientist and psychologist at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, Canada, has been running a ‘Healing Journey Programme’ for cancer patients at the PMH. His research, based on closely tracking patients with medically incurable metastatic cancers as they went through a year of group therapy, showed that one third of those who became most highly involved lived on an average 3 times longer than those who were the least involved (oncologists had predicted similar survival times for all). The programme he offers draws heavily on our yogic practices. Indeed, he spent time in India studying them.
The effects of asanas
Nearer home, the Bihar School of Yoga under the guidance of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, published a book in 2009 which laid down the steps necessary for managing cancer. Among other things, it emphasizes the role of diet and lifestyle, asana and pranayama, yoga nidra and prana vidya, mantras and yantras and visual imagery. At the CanSupport Day Care Centre our trained volunteers have been offering these practices to cancer patients and their caregivers for a number of years along with music, art and laughter therapies.
They can vouch for the almost immediate effects of a few yoga asanas and pranayama exercises on overstressed bodies: spines regain their natural shape as muscles relax and anxiety levels reduce as breathing regains its natural rhythm. The physical impacts the psychological and also helps connect with the spiritual. The result is that after a few classes as people experience a sense of well being they begin to believe in their recovery and are better able to cope with uncertainty. This facilitates healing at a very deep level and as the research of Dr. Cunningham and others have shown can even slow down the growth of cancer.
Need for structured programmes
It is a shame that cancer institutions in our country do not as yet have a structured programme, based on yoga, which they can offer patients and caregivers as part of cancer treatment and recovery. This is a pressing need as it is well known that despite the most sophisticated treatments it is finally the body’s immune system that defeats cancer as is being acknowledged today with the promise of immunotherapy. What needs to be emphasized is the unique ability of the human body to fight back provided it gets the right back up and support. This requires a union (yoga) of body and mind with the spiritual essence or life force and yoga provides you with the tools to achieve this.
This first World Yoga Day will not have been wasted if it can serve as a wakeup call for our policy makers and administrators. Bring yogic practices, including diet, into our medical institutions and offer them to patients under the guidance of trained instructors. Help us to heal ourselves.
Harmala Gupta is Founder-President, CanSupport. It can be contacted on its helpline 011-26711212.