A cancer diagnosis usually comes attached to logistical, mental and emotional pandemonium. Yoga can offer a brief 'vacation' from cancer overload.
Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
I've always kept myself at arm's-length from yoga. I've taken yoga classes here and there for over twenty years, but yoga studios always seemed to have an air of cliquey-ness. Yoga was like a secret society for which I, having a penchant for cheeseburgers and beer, would never be taught the secret handshake. Because my practice was so sporadic, I never got past being a beginner. I know, I know... even the yogis who can twist themselves into pretzels and lift their entire bodies off the ground with the tip of their pinkies consider themselves “beginners,” but I'm talking the “not quite sure if I'm even doing downward dog correctly” type of beginner. My sense of balance is laughable, to the point where, when I'm carrying a drink at a family gathering, people place bets about whether I'll make it across the room without spilling. In light of this, whenever I've taken yoga classes, I've arrived early to claim a space along the wall so I could hold on when the dreaded tree pose rolled around. I liked yoga, but long ago made peace with the fact that I was never going to be a yoga person.
When I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma in late 2014, I had been living abroad for almost a decade. I was forced to quit my job and return home to New York for treatment. I was moving back into my parents’ suburban home in the dead of winter. If anything, yoga was a good excuse to get out of the house for something other than doctor's appointments. I bought a new yoga mat and a few pairs of yoga pants, and printed out schedules for all the local studios. But with no income and still carrying the self-consciousness that has always pervaded my yoga practice, I only managed to attended a class every week or two. When, only several months after my diagnosis, the immunotherapy drug combination I was on rendered me essentially cancer-free, my verve(ish) for yoga fell to the wayside.
Fast forward nine months, during which my scans continue to show no evidence of disease. My appetite disappears and I am riddled by extreme fatigue. I feel downright shitty, which I attribute to my ever flip-flopping thyroid levels, or perhaps my body's final farewell to side effects, or maybe it's my cancer, shaking its fist and shouting, “eff-you” as I round the corner in escape. I visit a friend in San Francisco and decide that I would combat my fatigue with yoga. I walk into what is perhaps the most beautiful, affordable, non-judgmental yoga center I have ever been to and sign on for a three-day pass. Not only is my enthusiasm for yoga renewed, but I also discover restorative yoga, a meditative, low-exertion practice that I fall madly in love with.
I return to New York and undergo the PET scan that, if clean, will mark one year of being cancer-free. I rock up to NYU for an appointment with my oncologist to learn my scan results, followed by my final immunotherapy infusion. I am dripping with apprehension, though. This time it's not the typical 'scanxiety' that has accompanied every scan results appointment before. I had spent my therapy session the previous day trying to make sense of exactly what “moving forward” means. It is time to put the role of “cancer patient” in my spring cleaning boxes and try “cancer survivor” on for size. With my recent weight loss, I think it might even look good on me.
As it turns out, the lack of appetite and fatigue are not a side effect of the drug combo, nor are they result of my schizophrenic thyroid. My scans reveal that I have four new, large, oozing tumors - two in my stomach and two in my small intestine. I'm back at ground zero, and I am gutted. After a blood transfusion and an endoscopic biopsy, I'm set on a new course of promising treatment. The weeks that follow are emotionally devastating, mentally exhausting and physically brutal. I find myself desperate for something, anything, that can help me through it.
I find a local studio that offers a newbie special: one month of unlimited sessions for $40. And they offer restorative yoga. I begin to attend classes almost daily. I mostly opt for the gentler classes and struggle my way through a few more challenging ones. I pull instructors aside before class to disclose that I am on pretty intense cancer drugs, mostly so that they will leave me be if I opt out of poses that I'm not ambitious enough to try. I absorb a few choice pieces of wisdom from the lips of instructors, wondering on occasion if they are said just for my benefit. I learn how to be here now. Yoga starts to feel good... right. I even manage to roll myself into a passable headstand. I still can't do tree pose without holding onto the wall, but, as one instructor pointed out, "Every tree bends differently in the breeze." I shed my self-consciousness. I embrace the present. And I absolutely relish in the quietude of Shavasana (aka corpse pose, ironically enough) that punctuates each class.
As I'm nearing the end of a particularly enjoyable class, I am suddenly flooded by emotion. I find myself in child's pose, sobbing into my own knees. This is not my one of my typical, weekly cancer cries. These are tears of gratitude. I realize that I am crying because these hours spent breathing and stretching in darkened rooms have offered me a critically needed reprieve from the shitstorm of chaos and heartbreak and to-do lists and pity and fear that cancer has brought into my life. And it is in this moment that I know that I have finally made the transition. I have become a yoga person. Or at least a “yoga with a side of cheeseburger” person.