Yoga Improves Quality of Life in Men Having Radiotherapy for Prostate Cancer

August 2, 2016
Katie Hay

The health benefits of yoga are many, but in the oncology setting, studies of the approach have focused primarily on women with breast cancer. However, a small, first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring how yoga may also improve treatment-related symptoms in men who are undergoing radiotherapy for their prostate cancer. And the results, thus far, are promising.

Neha Vapiwala, MD

The health benefits of yoga are many, but in the oncology setting, studies of the approach have focused primarily on women with breast cancer. However, a small, first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring how yoga may also improve treatment-related symptoms in men who are undergoing radiotherapy for their prostate cancer. And the results, thus far, are promising.

“My patients teach me a lot about the side effects they can endure related to their prostate cancer,” says Neha Vapiwala, MD, advisory dean, Perelman School of Medicine, and associate professor of Radiation Oncology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “As they go through their cancer journey from diagnosis through treatment, we try to be mindful of the impact on quality of life.”

Side effects from prostate cancer and its treatment can include fatigue, urinary and erectile dysfunction, and decreased sex drive—in addition to the emotional toll cancer itself takes.

Therefore, Vapiwala and colleagues decided to see how patients with prostate cancer would fare with structured, 75-minute yoga classes, twice per week, throughout the duration of their radiation treatment. Radiation treatments lasted anywhere from 6 to 9 weeks and delivered 5 times per week. Twenty-seven patients completed the feasibility study in full.

One of the biggest accomplishments, according to Vapiwala, was actually getting men to commit to doing yoga:

“If you look across the country, reportedly less than 7% of men older than 45 are doing yoga, yet in our study of patients with cancer, we were able to recruit men that were in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and older—and we were able to get them truly engaged in it.”

Traditional yoga classes focus on meditation and strengthening the body as a whole. However, the yoga poses in these classes also emphasized pelvic floor strength, which Vapiwala says could potentially play a role in mitigating some of the typical side effects men in this setting experience.

Overall, the study findings suggest a willingness to participate in yoga and a subsequent positive impact on patient-reported fatigue and overall quality of life.

“Those who did participate really seemed to indicate that it was incredibly important to their sense of community and well-being,” says Vapiwala. “The patients had very favorable things to say during and after their participation in the study, but we don’t know if they would have fared just as well even if they didn’t do the yoga.”

This is why Vapiwala and her colleagues designed a randomized phase II study testing how yoga impacts patient-reported urinary function, sexual health, and quality of life. These data are currently being evaluated by the research team.

Patients in this phase of the research practiced yoga for the same amount of time as those in the pilot study and filled out the same questionnaires. The difference this time around is that Vapiwala used a control group to compare results.

“We have theories [as to] why yoga promotes a sense of well-being, we have theories on how it might help with sexual health function, we have theories on how pelvic floor strength can help urinary control, but it’s critical to have more scientific explanations,” says Vapiwala.

Next steps for the research include taking the data from the randomized study on fatigue and sexual health and adding blood and urine samples for correlative work in the laboratory. Phase II findings are expected to be completed soon.