A former oncologist discusses how yoga became a vital part of her recovery after a surprise breast cancer diagnosis.
It felt like the most ironic turn of events of all time when I found out I had stage 3a breast cancer.
As a medical oncologist, who had specialized in the treatment of breast cancer for more than 10 years, I knew that breast cancer could affect anyone, but somehow, I thought in some cosmic way that it wouldn’t affect me. I mean, I had dedicated so much of my life to helping women fight this disease, I couldn’t possibly also get the disease, right? Wrong. At age 40, after having retired early from my practice, I discovered a large tumor in my breast that spread to local lymph nodes, aggressive chemotherapy, surgery and radiation ensued.
I had been an active yoga practitioner for 7-8 years before breast cancer and had known that it helped me with many things (chronic back pain resolved, I felt more energy, stress eased, muscles toned). And I had always thought yoga would be helpful to my patients who had complaints about weight gain or anxiety, which commonly accompany breast cancer treatment. But I had no idea the depth, or the breadth, of the benefit that yoga could have for a breast cancer patient until I went through it myself.
I truly believe that yoga got me through my cancer treatment and helped me recover to a place where I feel much stronger, healthier and happier than I was before I had cancer. It is easy to think that cancer will change us for the worse, like we will have physical limitations, lost vitality or vulnerabilities as a result of the disease and the treatment, but yoga has taught me that with the proper perspective and approach, a breast cancer diagnosis can actually turn into a wonderful opportunity for growth and optimization of health in body, mind and spirit. Your “new normal” can still be the best version of you yet!
Study of the yamas and the niyamas of yoga philosophy helped me get my mind right, in the way that I thought about my situation during and after my cancer treatment. For example, focusing on santosha helped me find contentment instead of frustration with feeling sick during chemo or when the result of my breast reconstruction wasn’t perfect. Svadhyaya, or self-study, helped me to think about what I was learning through this experience, like patience or humility or how to ask for help. Asana practice was huge in restoring my range of motion after bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction and radiation left my chest wall and shoulders very stiff and sore. Losing my yoga practice was one of my biggest fears, and a slow and steady return to asana allowed me to prove to myself that I could get back to full strength and activity, which was so empowering.
Pranayama, or breath practice, calmed my mind when I felt fear about the potential long-term outcome of my cancer, or when I was going crazy anxiously awaiting test results. I have since learned more about the underlying mechanisms by which yoga achieves some of these things, now coming to light through scientific research. There is fascinating research showing that yoga has anti-inflammatory effects in the body and does things like shift the balance of our nervous system toward rest and healing, and away from conditions of chronic stress. Finally, there is a growing literature of well-designed research documenting yoga’s benefits in cancer survivors in different areas, such as cancer-related fatigue, sleep, overall quality of life, and mood. Ongoing studies are investigating yoga’s benefits on other things like neuropathy, lymphedema, cognitive function, immune function, etc.
In these ways and more, yoga can support us through all aspects of the breast cancer experience, helping us connect to our true selves, to a place of peace, resilience, and overall well-being that can fill our days, both the good ones and the bad ones, with joy and ease. If you haven’t tried yoga yet, ask your doctor to recommend a yoga program with a teacher experienced with cancer survivors and give it a try. You won’t regret it!