Yes, Yogis Can Get Cancer Too. Here's What I Wish I'd Known

Photo: Christine Hewitt

As I sat in the waiting room in the basement of the NYU Cancer Center waiting to see my oncologist, I picked up the New York Times to find an article titled "Colon and Rectal Cancers Rising in Young People." I consumed the article in minutes and read it again…and again. "Cancers of the colon and rectum have been declining in older adults in recent decades and have always been considered rare in young people. But scientists are reporting a sharp rise in adults as young as their 20s and 30s, an ominous trend…Experts aren’t sure why," the article stated.

I was living the wellness dream life.

This past July, at age 41, I was diagnosed with stage 3 rectal cancer. The cause was unknown, and it came as quite a surprise! You see, I’m a yogi—it’s a wellness lifestyle. Along with that is my dedication to healthy habits. My morning ritual includes oil pulling, a 20-minute meditation, and dry skin brushing. I sip on hot water with turmeric and lemon throughout the day. I rarely drink alcohol. I eat healthy. You get the idea.

We are not exempt from cancer because we are drinking kombucha and meditating.

In 2012 I left a high-stress job in fashion, and that same year I graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and earned certification as a yoga teacher. Spending lots of time in the wellness bubble, I met and became friends with a tight circle of health and wellness trendsetters and trailblazers. Eventually I morphed into an event producer with a unique niche: health and wellness. My first big gig was with my dear friend Joe Cross (you know, the juice guy). Together, we produced Camp Reboot, a 200-person retreat at the Omega Institute, three years in a row. It was quite satisfying to see the participants walk away with great health gains and a toolbox of new skills to take home and create their own wellness routine.

Now, here I am sharing my most unexpected experience with cancer to spread a very important message. Whenever I reveal my diagnosis or mention that I am on chemotherapy, the recipient of this information usually reacts with a comment like, "But you look so healthy," or "How can that be? You take such good care of yourself." It wasn’t until reading the article in the Times that I was able to put this together: Yogis get cancer too. This is why I am sharing my story. Tell your friends, your sisters, your lovers. We are not exempt from cancer because we are drinking kombucha and meditating. There is much conversation in the health and wellness world about digestion and gut health; it is imperative to add awareness and early detection by colorectal cancer screening to the conversation.

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I had symptoms for over two years before I was diagnosed and maybe even subtle signs before that.

I’d seen a gastroenterologist and a proctologist prescribed suppositories for bleeding hemorrhoids. There was no explanation or discussion about a potential progressing disease. It never crossed my mind that my unresolved symptoms could be caused by something really serious, like cancer. Without any relief and a gut instinct of something being not quite right, I naturally tapped into all my contacts, resources, and knowledge in my wellness network. I explored ayurveda—How can I spark my agni?

Because of my judgments about the traditional Western medicine system, I ignored my instinct to revisit my symptoms with an M.D.

My bestie is a functional nutritionist, so I riffed, "I think my microbiome is out of whack. Do I have a leaky gut?" I saw an acupuncturist who advised me to eat cooked foods and sent me on my way with a bag of Chinese herbs. I tried an elimination diet, a raw food diet, a juice fast, and a dozen different brands of probiotics.

Because of my judgments about the traditional Western medicine system, I ignored my instinct to revisit my symptoms with an M.D. A colonoscopy would have detected the tumor...possibly early, before it grew into stage 3 cancer, before six months of chemo, and before a five-hour surgery to remove most of my rectum. And last but certainly not least, before a temporary ileostomy (yeah, that’s a plastic bag attached to my abdomen to collect waste while my plumbing is under repair).

After 8 rounds of chemotherapy (yuck) and two surgeries, I'm considered cancer-free.

I’m now in remission. I'm forever on diligent watch because the cancer could return and I understand that it is more difficult to treat if it comes back. So, I’ll carry on as a yogi with continued dedication to healthy habits. I credit these practices with sustaining my mind, body, and spirit through my year of treatment. I attribute the comments on looking healthy to my dedication to the practice. This is the path of the yogi, to show up and practice when it is most difficult.

So, before you read another article searching for alternative answers to what ails you, consider reaching out to a trusted M.D. for a checkup; show up and participate in your own well-being. Bring this article along as well as the article in the Times. I’m with you—we’ve got stats. One out of every three women will have cancer in her lifetime. Modern medicine has advanced science and technology for the specific purpose of diagnosing. Discuss what type of screenings and diagnostics are appropriate for you. Once you understand the big picture, you can decide how to navigate healing with the support of an M.D. or not if that is your choice. If you don’t have a relationship with an M.D., start looking for one. I suggest you start with researching functional medicine. Perhaps, here is an opportunity to bridge the chasm between Western and Eastern approaches. Most importantly, follow your gut. If you feel that something is seriously wrong, have it checked out—tested. Push the doctor, if you must, so you can rule out disease and move toward healing in a manner that is true to you. My dearest yogis, please do spread the good word—maintain your dedication to a healthy lifestyle and at the same time, open yourself up to cancer awareness and early detection. This just might save your life.

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