Having worked at the bedside as a pediatric nurse for 15 years, I am well-versed in acute care and have a passion for pediatric oncology. I recently shifted my focus from acute cancer treatment to the needs that are sometimes under-addressed during treatment, as well what happens after treatment is over. I took on the exciting, yet sometimes challenging task of developing a childhood cancer survivorship program in our area. I now spend my days scouring research studies with the goal of taking care of the "whole" survivor, not just the survivor’s acute medical needs. Let me clarify also that we consider these children to be survivors from the moment of diagnosis. This is meant to encourage a sense of empowerment over something that, in reality, they have very little control over.
All that said, a resounding theme in all my research has been how important it is to address the survivor’s emotional needs from diagnosis to end of treatment and beyond. The cancer journey is an inexplicably stressful one. Stress and anxiety can manifest physically. A study conducted at the University of Utah in 2008 found that "people who have a poorly regulated response to stress are also more sensitive to pain." The cancer journey holds many painful experiences such as surgeries, accessing central lines, blood draws, and side effects from their treatment like neuropathy. Reducing patients' stress can help them physically.
Meditation, relaxation, and exercise are widely known and practiced as stress relievers. Yoga, a lesser-known stress reliever, has become increasingly popular in the last few decades. The movements and controlled breathing practiced in yoga have been shown to improve physical manifestations of stress such as pain and fatigue. Cancer patients experience all of the above! A Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter reports that "yoga reduces stress and anxiety which in turn reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and eases respiration. Patients who practiced yoga were also less sensitive to pain and therefore better able to tolerate treatment." According to Duke University, "patients at all stages of health, including cancer survivors, can benefit from yoga. And the benefits are both physical and emotional."
An unwanted side effect that often accompanies cancer treatment is fatigue. The normal response to this extreme tiredness is rest. This can lead to a lack of physical activity. Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Yoga is becoming more and more popular with cancer survivors because it provides "a balanced form of whole-body exercise." It’s not strenuous, like we sometimes associate “exercise” with and benefits the cancer survivor not only physically, but mentally as well.
But isn’t yoga for adults? Did you know there are yoga classes out there for children? I didn’t realize this until recently. It makes perfect sense though, that if yoga can benefit adult cancer survivors, why can’t it benefit childhood cancer survivors as well? Armed with this new knowledge, Yoga for Kids will be introduced at our center next month. Oncology nursing is so much more than giving chemotherapy. I challenge you to broaden your focus as well.