How Yoga Helped Me Survive Cancer

I greet the sunrise on my yoga mat, peering out my window over snow-covered trees at the buttery light. I begin my salute to the sun. Forward bend, I rise and lift my hands in prayer. My breathing deepens and settles in a slow, soothing tide. Soon, I’m in a place I never imagined, healing from an experience I never could have foreseen.

In July of 2011, at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. I thought my life was over. I was told it most likely would be in 18 months. After the initial diagnosis, my days consisted of doctor's visits, chemotherapy, scans, sleep, sickness, and fear. But throughout all of it I never gave up hope.

On December 12, 2012, a year after the surgery that removed part of my colon and half of my liver, I was declared cancer free. Cancer free. Even saying those words now makes my heart sing. I rode the high of that declaration for a few days before the fear returned. "What if it comes back?" Like a haunting whisper this question was repeated again and again. So, I decided, if this fear wouldn't leave my mind, then I would. This is when I discovered yoga.

On my mat, the world disappears. I do not fear cancer. I do not replay those months of debilitating illness. I do not focus on the port and pump that still reside in my body. It is just me and my breath. On each inhale I feel my body fill with life. On the exhale I release all tension. When you truly focus on your breathing, there is no space in your mind for negative chatter. My breathing is a moment-to-moment reminder that I am alive.

Chemotherapy is a tricky beast. It cannot target only the cancer cells and destroy them. It is a sweeping forest fire within your body. And while I thank God every day for its existence, my body was ravaged and in desperate need of healing. My joints ached, my endurance was shot, the nerve weakness in my hands and feet made it difficult to walk in the cold weather. I could no longer run due to the hepatic pump (a device that pumps medicine directly into my liver) on my left side. I was running out of options. Then I remembered a yoga studio in town and how lovely the owner was. Maybe she could advise me. I contacted her and she said that while she no longer owned the studio, she was doing private instruction. She came to my house a few days later and changed my life.

Each week we work on different poses. Each week I seem to get stronger. Feeling the strength return to my body fills me with indescribable joy. Seeing the progress pushes me on. Each pose, each breath, brings me closer to my self. Not the cancer patient, but me. Every morning I stand on that mat and honor the day that lies ahead of me. I slowly go through my sun salutations, inhaling and exhaling. Holding on, and letting go.

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