How Yoga Can Help Cancer Survivors
Our Wisconsin fall has been incredible and with October’s approach, I am again inundated with the gloriousness of our landscape dotted with breast cancer pink ribbons and awareness signs scattered throughout the community.
This symbolic aspect of the pink ribbon craze for me is a reminder of support. It often makes me a bit nostalgic of that very unique period in my life living with and treating breast cancer. As weird as it sounds, I am grateful for that experience. Two years post, I have had the incredible opportunity to live a life working with and teaching the healing aspects of yoga to many including other survivors.
Almost everyone knows someone who has been impacted by this disease. The period of treatment can be brutal and the idea of yoga as twisting oneself up in pretzel like poses can be very intimidating for someone struggling with a new diagnosis or going through chemo. But with more scientific evidence backing up the benefits of yoga for all cancer patients, I feel compelled to give that gentle nudge to women to approach the idea of incorporating yoga into their life.
Here are a few of the many reasons why yoga can help cancer patients:
1. It combats anxiety.
A cancer diagnosis is at the top of the stress scale. As patients, we are often torn apart by the impact this will have not only on ourselves but also the people who love us. I remember feeling my brain looping from scary thought to scary thought. What will happen? to How will my family cope? then onto What does this mean financially?
This was all with the knowledge that disease thrives on stress (oh, great) and I would find myself in a negative holding pattern of fear. Admittedly, the idea of meditation in the beginning was laughable. If someone had recommended it initially I would have been irked by their insensitivity. Seriously, you want me to meditate?????
But with coaxing from my community and a music CD from a friend, I found myself unrolling my mat and pushing the play button. After a few minutes, my breath was wave-like and there were healing tears.
2. It helps you heal
I’ve done some writing for the organization Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LLBC) and have shared my thoughts on the physiological benefits of yoga for breast cancer patients.
There is risk involved in pushing too hard, too soon, but yoga teaches us to listen to our bodies. This crosses over to the time off your mat, when you are intuitively linked to the idea that something isn’t right.
I remember feeling extremely tired during chemo. This isn’t uncommon, but one particular day was different: within two hours of waking up, my body was almost too heavy to walk across the room and my breath felt very short. I called a friend who drove me in and a blood test revealed very low counts that required immediate attention.
Yoga teaches us to listen to our body and to be present enough to experience life both in happy moments and sad moments. It also asks us to be humble enough to adapt to what it needs.
3. Yoga increases your mobility
Recently at a check-up, my surgeon remarked on my range of motion. All that reaching, wrapping, and binding in yoga have rebuilt my muscles, broken down scar tissue, and prevented common after-effects of breast cancer, such as cording in the armpit and lymphedema.
It isn’t uncommon for women who have experienced a mastectomy and node removal to freeze up in their shoulders as a protective measure. Tight and sometimes even frozen shoulders are a result of the fear that creeps into the crevices of our bodies when it has experienced that kind of trauma.
Mindful stretching through yoga does more than just feel good. It reduces problematic side effects and brings cancer patients back into alignment.
4. It fosters acceptance
A moving meditation of asanas helps us to reconnect to ourselves. After several surgies, hair loss, and scarring, I allowed myself several personal pity parties and then decided it was time to move forward.
Being in a class with other yogis made me realize that we all have a story to tell. Mine was actually very interesting and instead of getting wrapped up in the insignificant details, I felt empowered to embrace the scars I earned. I’m in a special club now and feel compelled to give a wink and a smile to all women whom I meet with a port scar. My husband tells me he loves it. It is a badge of courage and representative of the power within me. I kind of like that.
Recently I was thrilled to host a wellness yoga retreat on Madeline Island for thirteen women. Two of them were survivors who attended to find peace and closure among the beauty of nature. Their courage and openness was a reminder to me of the inner strength that women summon when faced with adversity. I felt so proud to be their teacher and so aware of what I was learning from them.
Beginning a practice after diagnosis can be daunting, but find someone in your area with experience and training working with women who have been diagnosed. Even a few appointments may give you the tools and the inspiration you need to develop your own personal practice and lead to a path of healing and peace. There are some great publications and teachers out there with a wealth of knowledge prepared to walk with you on your healing journey.
Namaste, October yogis.