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September 17, 2020 | 3 minute read

Befriending Cancer Through Nutrition and Yoga Therapy

Often after completing allopathic treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, cancer patients are looking to play an active role in their wellness, partly by fully understanding their choices in nutrition to prevent cancer recurrence. Research shows that nutrition can make a difference in outcomes with cancer patients. Yoga therapy can have a similar benefit, which is why the combination of yoga therapy and nutrition therapy can fill a gap in whole-person wellness strategies while deepening the healing process. Being active and following a healthy diet are also listed in AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

On the journey with cancer, the cancer itself becomes the focal point and causes trauma, which yoga teaches us can be managed with some key elements. When cancer alone is the focus, often the patient develops an attitude of war with cancer, rather than one of befriending cancer. Understandably, it initially seems very hard to imagine “befriending” something you want to eradicate. A trauma-sensitive approach embodies a few key principles: (1) the power of choice; (2) commitment to present-moment awareness through body orientation, breath and sensation awareness; (3) use of rhythmic, repetitive and hold methods; and (4) activating awe and wonder. In this way, a yogic trauma-sensitive approach supports us to cultivate an attitude of befriending ourselves: This is the gift cancer can offer us.

The physical changes and psychosocial stress, which can play havoc on the immune system, are factors that decrease our immune response and lead to inflammation. Starting with food as medicine and focusing on what to eat, along with when and how to eat (mindfully), especially given the current research on the importance of dietary patterns, mindfulness and metabolic therapies such as fasting. Helping individuals recognize their stress response, be it long-term or from short bouts of stress, often creates an opening in the conversation to discuss self-care tools. If people can connect with their breath, they feel more grounded and calmer and, in many cases, they have a deeper experience in connecting with feelings of satiety and mindfulness when eating.

Cancer affects us at the cellular level, and instead of working with cancer from a symptom-management perspective only, there is great value when we also consider the body and its building blocks. Nutrition is essential while we are working on the mind, breath and movement, because until the layer of nourishment is addressed the therapy cannot fully integrate with the person. A person can meditate, exercise and even have an extensive breath work practice, but if they never address the layer of food, the effects of yoga tools can be limited.

A growing number of RDNs are becoming yoga teachers who can use mind-body modalities such as yoga to offer more sustainability in maintaining a healthy weight, managing a chronic disease like cancer and improving quality of life. Reach out to your local cancer centers and hospitals to see who they may have on staff. More often than not, there is a social worker who supports patients navigating through cancer. If you would like to start the process on your own, feel free to check-out AICR’s iTHRIVE program.

This article originally appeared in Yoga Therapy Today, published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Used with permission.

This article was edited by Certified Yoga Therapist, Sharon Holly.

Additional Resources


  • World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report (2018). Diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer: A global perspective. Retrieved from wcrf.org/dietandcancer
  • Lutgendorf, S. K., & Sood, A. K. (2011). Biobehavioral factors and cancer progression: Physiological pathways and mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73(9),724–730. Retrieved from /www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3319047/

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