Jan 16, 2004

Taking part in an innovative cancer research study conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and its Cancer Center, six women enter a chapel that has been temporarily transformed into a different type of sanctum. Chairs have been moved to the walls, where the women seat themselves awaiting direction from yoga instructor Ricardo Sisco. He greets each woman with a silent nod and a smile while making sure they each have a rolled mat or folded blanket for doing the yoga exercises.

The women – all breast cancer patients – are among the more than 100 taking part in a study conducted by Dr. Alyson Moadel, director of the Psychosocial – Oncology Program at Einstein, examining the impact of yoga in reducing the physical and emotional stresses associated with breast cancer and its treatment. They follow Ricardo’s instructions – given in both English and Spanish – closing their eyes and breathing in through their noses, and then exhaling. The weekly classes, which include gentle stretches and meditation as part of the exercises, are held at three locations – Weiler Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center, and the Albert Einstein Cancer Center outpatient clinic.

Today’s group is small; at full capacity, there are as many as a dozen participants. The women, most over 50, are in various stages of treatment for their cancer and come from throughout the Bronx to take part in the study. Most also are either African-American or Hispanic, representing two communities that are often underserved where alternative therapies are concerned.

“It definitely helps me to relax,” says Ruby Williams, a 72-year old African-American woman who is battling cancer for the second time. “You can feel so tired after treatment and I find the yoga helps me to feel better.”

Ms. Williams is not alone in finding benefits from the yoga exercises. In an initial report on the study, presented in June 2003 to the largest oncology conference in the world, Dr. Moadel reported that participants who took part in the yoga classes said they feel better able to cope with their disease, fatigue and physical functioning.

“When compared with the control group, who are not currently involved in yoga classes, the women in the class demonstrated a 12 percent advantage in symptom management, and experienced less social and emotional distress,” says Dr. Moadel. “Our preliminary results, based on 60 participants, suggest that yoga may provide a buffer to the physical, social and emotional symptoms associated with breast cancer and its treatment.”

Because of these initial results, Dr. Moadel, who also is an assistant professor of epidemiology and population health at Einstein, recently received a $230,000 grant from The Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation, through which she will continue her current work with breast cancer patients while also expanding the focus of her study to include patients with lung and colorectal cancers. Initial funding for the project was provided by a $100,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health and by $20,000 in seed money from the Langeloth Foundation for the pilot study begun by Dr. Moadel two years ago. (Additional funds for the project were provided by The Balm Foundation.)

“We have been interested in Dr. Moadel’s work since she began the study, as our foundation seeks to support and promote effective and creative programs related to healing, and to extend the availability of programs that promote healing to underserved populations,” says George Labalme, Jr., president of the Langeloth Foundation.

“A majority of patients we surveyed at our oncology clinics indicated an interest in complementary medicine, and previous studies had shown that yoga offered benefits to patients with cardiovascular problems, asthma, and anxiety,” Dr. Moadel says. “Examining the benefits of yoga among cancer patients seemed a natural progression. As a result, the Einstein study is, we believe, the first in the U.S. to examine the benefits that yoga might offer patients with cancer.”

She credits two influential collaborators, without whose efforts the study wouldn’t be possible, noting, “Dr. Chirag Shah, an oncologist and certified yoga instructor from India, suggested its original concept and developed the yoga protocol, and Dr. Joseph Sparano, director of the Breast Medical Oncology Program at the Albert Einstein Cancer Center, has assisted with design and referral throughout. Collectively, we’ve been able to develop a gentle and appropriate yoga intervention that has attracted more than 100 women, to date.”

“We’re grateful to the Langeloth Foundation for its ongoing support, “ she adds. “Our initial results certainly indicate that the women see gains to their overall quality of life.”

Ada Richards couldn’t agree more. A 77-year-old who not only had a double mastectomy, but also suffers from glaucoma and asthma, Ms. Richards offers compelling testament to the benefits of yoga.

“It has made a tremendous difference for me. The eye exercises help me to see better. The breathing helps with my asthma and with reducing stress. And the exercises get me moving and keep me moving,” she says. “Two years ago, when I first started the yoga, I couldn’t lift my arms above my head.” Then, with a smile, she raises both arms skyward.