New directions in cancer treatment: Fascia, cancer progression and yoga

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Upwards of 40% of Americans with cancer use a complementary approach to manage symptoms. New research finds that fascia may be key, and alternative approaches may be effective for easing some of cancer's effects.



A new wave of cancer research is focusing on the role of inflammation and connective tissue stiffness in tumor growth, spreading and metastasis.  This raises the question of whether yoga, massage, and other complementary therapies designed to reduce inflammation and stiffness may be beneficial.


Yoga, massage, acupuncture, and other alternatives to allopathic medicine are frequently used to reduce symptoms related to cancer treatment such as pain, fatigue, psychological distress and insomnia. We are only beginning to learn whether these modalities impact inflammation and stiffness in the fascial network, which have been linked to other cancer-related concerns such as decreased strength, range of motion, and functional mobility.


The fascial network is a body-wide matrix of extracellular connective tissue that integrates the musculoskeletal system, surrounds the body’s organs, and houses blood and lymphatic vasculature.  In a study reported in the journal Cancer Research, a group of scientists headed up by renowned fascia researcher Helene Langevin proposed that loss of functional mobility and reduced patient activity may not only contribute to additional tissue stiffness within this network, but that stiffness of connective tissue may be linked to tumor growth, spreading and metastasis.


These conclusions are largely derived from imaging research and animal models. Studies using elastography, which maps the elasticity of tissue, and atomic force microscopy, which permits very high resolution cellular imaging, show that malignant tumors tend to be stiffer than benign masses. This may be due to increased collagen deposits surrounding the tumor. In animal studies, increased collagen deposits were found to promote tumor progression. Although this research is in its infancy, it suggests a relationship between tissue stiffness and cancer cell growth.


Yoga, acupuncture and massage are designed to stretch fascial tissue and reduce inflammation. This raises the question of whether these therapeutic modalities may enhance conventional cancer treatment by decreasing fascial stiffness and lessening chronic inflammation which may, in turn, inhibit tumor growth, spreading or metastasis. This hypothesis is not without controversy. Some researchers question whether applying pressure or force to a tumor or adjacent tissue might dislodge malignant cells and promote their migration.


Additional, high quality studies will be needed to resolve this dilemma, and to assess the direct or indirect linkages between inflammation, fascial stiffness and cancer progression, as well as the extent to which yoga and other complementary therapies may benefit those living with cancer.


Sources

Langevin, H.M., Keely, P., Mao, J., Hodge, L.M., Schleip, R. et al., (2016).  Connecting (T)issues: How research in fascia biology can impact integrative oncology.  Cancer Research, 76 (21), 6159-6162. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-16-0753

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