GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Researchers at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey think yoga might someday help keep breast cancer survivors pain- and cancer-free. Now, they are working to prove their theory.
The researchers, lead by physical therapy professor Mary Lou Galantino, are trying to determine if yoga can reduce the pain that is a side-effect of medication that prevents recurrence of breast cancer.
There's very little information available now on how yoga benefits people suffering from various diseases. The more information researchers get, the more they'll be able to integrate yoga into medical rehabilitation practices.
Galantino is a breast cancer survivor and yoga devotee who got certified to teach the practice during the 1990s. Her prior research on yoga has explored its application to treating arthritis and managing lower back pain.
Galantino said recently she hopes this review - if successful - will spur additional studies with the larger, random sample of participants needed to conclusively link yoga with reduced joint pain among postmenopausal breast cancer survivors taking aromatase inhibitors.
Before menopause, the ovaries produce estrogen. Afterward, the production of the hormone occurs mainly through converting androgens to estrogen. The naturally produced enzyme aromatase enables that process. Inhibitor medicines prevent cancer from re-emerging by blocking the enzyme, thereby minimizing the estrogen that can fuel breast cancer cells. Levels of estrogen also fall naturally during menopause, which radiation can bring on early, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some women stop taking the aromatase inhibitor drugs because of the associated joint pain and its hampering effect on daily tasks, according to Galantino's research proposal.
The study is the first step toward larger studies with more conclusive findings. Publicizing this and future studies could also raise awareness and enable some women who might have otherwise quit taking aromatase inhibitors to continue with the drugs while doing yoga, said research assistant and physical therapy student Ben Archetto.
Recruitment of volunteers for the study is slow because criteria for participation is pretty specific, Archetto said.
Participants must be a disease-free for at least three moths and postmenopausal for at least a year to control for hormone fluctuations that could confuse outcomes, he said.
"I actually spoke at Gilda's Club over winter break and I had good reception initially, but when I went through the exclusion criteria, I could tell I was losing people," he said.
Archetto and the rest of Galantino's team have recruited one qualifying participant so far.
Ellen Pospiech, 56, is about halfway through the eight-week program that calls for three yoga sessions at home each week, plus two classes at Yoga Nine or Gilda's Club in Linwood. The local Gilda's Club is part of a nationwide network of centers that provide support for cancer patients, survivors and their families.
Of multiple yoga disciplines, researchers chose Inyegar yoga because it is gentle, adaptable to sitting or lying down and emphasizes mindfulness and relaxation, which can help manage stress, Galantino said.
Instructors monitor Pospiech's balance, flexibility and perceived pain, function and quality-of-life. Researchers also hope to demonstrate that people who expect more benefits will reap more, according to Galantino's proposal.
Archetto said participants do not get paid, but do get free yoga classes. Generally, those sessions would start at $10 each.
Pospiech, of Ocean City, has always stayed active through running, walking and working out at the gym, but never practiced yoga until she started going to Gilda's Club. Enrolling in the study one month ago upped her weekly sessions to five.
Although Pospiech completed chemotherapy for breast cancer eight years ago, she continues continues to visit doctors and undergo quarterly blood testing.
Chemotherapy had another lasting effect for her: premature menopause and osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. Those factors combined with the drugs, a mastectomy and hysterectomy left her with joint pain and very little estrogen to dull it.
"Whenever I have issues, it's hard for me to pinpoint things. It could be anything, there are so many things happening to me (health wise)," Pospiech said.
She felt less pain during some tasks as she began to tune into her body during yoga.
During the past month, she has become less hesitant about completing chores that would have proved too daunting before.
"I think I held back because I felt like I had so many issues, but yoga makes you realize not to wimp out on things, to just try it, and you'll see that you can."
Contact Emily Previti:
What it means
Who: Stockton professors Mary Lou Galantino, Jun Mao and Laurie Greene; students Ben Archetto, Paula Hassall, Joanna Kluz-Murphy, Jamie Umstetter and Melissa Baumgartner
What: Studying how Inyegar yoga might reduce joint pain often experienced by breast cancer survivors because they take aromatase inhibitors, which are medicines that prevent the resurgence of the disease.
When: Ongoing through Oct. 26, 2010, with goal of presenting at research conference in March 2011.
Where: Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township; Gilda's Club in Linwood; Yoga Nine in Galloway.
Why: Smaller pilot studies like this one can spur the randomized clinical trials needed to better-support hypotheses.
Past research: Since 2000, Galantinto has conducted multiple studies exploring the benefits of yoga to different physical issues, including low-back pain, arthritis and chemotherapy-induced cognitive decline.
Possible benefits: Could raise awareness and thus enable even those outside the study's participants to manage their pain on their own and at a low cost.
Potential problems: Getting enough subjects - between 10 and 15 people - for the pilot. Participants must be female breast cancer survivors taking aromatase-inhibitors who have been disease-free for at least three months and postmenopausal for one year or longer. But even if researchers do not hit that target number, they can modify their model to a case-study involving one or two subjects.