Yoga Therapy for Pediatric Cancer
By Tyla Arnason
Picture hearing the words “It’s cancer” come across the desk at you. Now try to imagine that the doctor is speaking to you about your child. It’s impossible to wrap your head around, much less your heart. However, for the parents of 300,000 children worldwide, this is a stark reality each year.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in children and adolescents.
Childhood cancers differ from adult cancers in many ways. One of the most difficult to comprehend, there’s no general prevention or screening for childhood cancers. As well, the vast majority of cancers in children have no known cause. Childhood cancer isn’t generally caused by environmental or lifestyle factors as it can be in adults.
The good news in all this is, thanks to medical and technological advances, we’re seeing about an 80% survivorship rate in childhood cancer.
Sadly, this number drops significantly in low-income countries. With survivorship can come substantial long-term effects from the cancer itself and, or it’s treatment. This can impact kids in many ways, not the least of which is their ability to participate in physical activity.
With a childhood cancer diagnosis comes a lot of fear and uncertainty, for both the parents and the children.
However, we know, and the evidence is building, that it’s safe and beneficial for children with cancer to be physically active, this includes practicing yoga. In clinical settings, yoga is often under the umbrella of mild physical activity.
From a yoga therapy lens, we have a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on children undergoing such a burden from a physical and emotional wellbeing perspective.
Though the current research is limited, it does suggest that yoga can be an important additional complementary therapy and a great choice for kids who may be at risk, or feeling too unwell, for more vigorous forms of physical activity.
The difficulty comes in ensuring their activities and movements are safe given the challenges facing them. For this reason, it’s very important that those teaching yoga to kids with cancer, stay within their scope of practice and refer back to the child’s medical teams whenever necessary.
Yoga therapists don’t need to be a cancer expert, but being well versed will help
Needing to very clearly understand scope of practice, being certain to gather documented health information, getting doctor’s clearance and having a contact for questions that may come up are important building blocks to teaching within this population.
Being able to refer to the medical team is vital.
Though it’s not always possible to talk with the oncologist or surgeon, a nurse or physical therapist may make themselves available if they know the child wants to participate in yoga or if the yoga is being offered in hospital. There are possible contraindications to consider and certainly precautionary measures that need to be in place. Kids balance can be impacted, from the cancer itself or treatment. Weight-bearing may be an issue for some children and in most cases, fatigue and nausea are certainly a factor.
In my experience being involved in a pediatric cancer and yoga research project and evidence-informed community programming, parents felt reassured that instructors were well equipped, medical teams were on board and most importantly, they felt yoga was a safe and fun activity for their child.
"The very best part was seeing these courageous children after class. Their moods were lifted, their confidence boosted, friendships among those in similar situations strengthened and they’d had time and space to return to the playful nature that children should never be robbed of."
The risks of a sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts all children, however can be even worse for children battling pediatric cancers.
By having kids maintain physical activity, including yoga, the severe effects of treatment as well as co-morbidities can be reduced. Above all, we can provide children an outlet to be a child again during such a challenging, difficult time.
TYLA ARNASON is a C-IAYT, Certified Yoga Therapist, Lead Instructor and Teacher Trainer for Yoga Thrive Program Development - Yoga Thrive for Pediatric Oncology Out-Patients.
She is also faculty for the 100-hour Yoga Therapy for Youth Training - leading the Yoga Therapy for Pediatric Cancer module. See her faculty page.
Tyla has taught hundreds of classes to thousands of students with a cancer diagnosis. She has applied the knowledge gained from working both privately and in groups, with cancer survivors and from numerous trainings and workshops to develop yoga protocols that have been used extensively in research. These include; Yoga Thrive Level 2, Yoga for Pediatric Oncology Out-Patients and True NTH Lifestyle Management for those with prostate cancer. In partnership with Dr. Culos-Reed, Tyla leads the Yoga Thrive Teacher Training Program that has equipped over 150 certified yoga instructors throughout Canada and the U.S. with the skillset necessary to teach within the cancer community. Along with training and mentoring many teachers through Yoga Thrive, Tyla also sits on the Yoga Therapy International faculty as a Resource Specialist Mentor and facilitates the Yoga for Cancer and Chronic Illness module for The Yoga Studio College of Canada’s Gold Therapy Program.
Learn more about Tyla at www.theyogaeffectcalgary.com