Surviving Cancer: Lessons from Yoga

My best friend from childhood was diagnosed with cancer after experiencing unrelenting pain for months in her neck, back and shoulder.

  • Chronic Pain.”
  • “Cancer”
  • “Stage 4.”
  • “Terminal.”

Such words are bleak and menacing. Cancer upends everything. It’s a devastating decree, and the “battle” against it involves toxic and invasive medical treatments. One’s focus abruptly shifts to a bewildering array of medical jargon and statistics, fraught decisions about uncomfortable procedures—and all with an acute awareness of mortality and the fragility of one’s body. It’s hardcore.

My friend Tracey was lucky. Once diagnosed, she underwent the surgery-chemo-radiation trifecta. The traumatic surgery turned out to be unnecessary because her cancer was deemed “inoperable,” but thankfully the other two treatments succeeded to lengthen her life. As Tracey tells it, however, what really saved her is less about life longevity than life quality, and for this, she credits yoga. Her yoga teacher, Wendy Campbell, a cancer survivor herself, has helped Tracey face pain and mortality with equanimity, and open her eyes and heart to the life that she has.

I write this piece with some urgency—for Tracey. With a life expectancy measured in months, Tracey wants to increase awareness about the life-changing practices she learned from Wendy. Yoga offers a caring system of physical postures, breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation that counters the often dehumanizing experience of being a “cancer patient.”

Having worked for decades as a nurse, Tracey well understands both the promises and shortcomings of our medical system. As a patient, she has experienced yoga as offering “real care” or “real health care.” Yoga provided her with a mental anchor and positive reconnection with her changing body, while undergoing the ravages of cancer treatments.

Luigi Cassinelli, used with permission
Source: Luigi Cassinelli, used with permission

Tracey is far from alone. Randomized, controlled trials – the gold standard of research – have shown that yoga offers cancer patients significant improvements in life quality, emotional wellbeing, sleep, mood, and finding meaning.1 Increasing numbers of studies are being conducted, including systematic reviews of these studies.2 Findings include decreases in anxiety, depression, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, hot flashes, cognitive impairments, sleep–wake disturbances, and pain and fatigue in people with cancer, and for caregiver strain and burden.While more research has been carried out on educated, young women--the typical demographic of yoga enthusiasts—these findings have also held when yoga was introduced across diverse populations, including older men with a moderate level of education.4

For Tracey, yoga has brought strength, courage, and even peace throughout her medical journey. She describes being able to “gladly go to horrible procedures that didn’t seem so horrible” because she had “yoga on the brain.”

After awakening from thoracic surgery, I was paralyzed by pain. Intubation had seared my throat and rendered my voice silent, and the call button and pain pump were out of reach. Panic started to rise from the thought that I’d have to endure this excruciating, unbearable pain. The intensity felt overwhelming. But somehow, I managed to move my focus to the rhythm of my breath connecting to the ebb and flow. I remembered how my yoga instructor would lead us to reservoirs to draw strength, courage or simply more ease during challenging poses. Her words provided relief for my suffering and were vital to my recovery.

As Tracey continued with treatment, yogic breathing techniques allowed radiation sessions to become a haven for her personal meditation.

The stillness and presence I tapped into during these sessions were life-saving medicine for me. Rather than feeling encased in a suffocating tomb, I could create spaciousness. Silently chanting Sat Nam (I am) with the movement of my breath connected me to this experience and to the power to heal.

And on a deep level, yoga has helped Tracey learn to live while accepting her mortality. Terminal illness presents the challenge of holding on, while letting go—a dynamic that is embodied in every yoga pose. Furthermore, most yoga sessions conclude with “the corpse pose” (savasana), which many consider the most important part of yoga practice. This pose involves lying still on one’s back with eyes closed for a good amount of time to foster meditation and relaxation. Participants focus on their breath and practice releasing muscular tension and mental chatter, while surrendering fully into a state of presence. As Tracey has learned from her teacher, by stilling her mind, the ego identity starts to fade into the meditative stream and the boundary of self falls away. She reports: “when I am empowered to face my fears, I can evolve past them."

Traditional cancer centers are starting to offer educational sessions and support for patients and staff in yoga practice, and how to integrate these with conventional treatments. Some yoga-based trainings, like YogaNursing, are being offered for oncology professionals for their own self-care and to inspire them to start classes for patients and families.5 Others, like Tracey’s teacher, Wendy Campbell, are committed to increasing the availability of yoga to those who need it the most. Wendy explains the relevance for people undergoing cancer treatment:

When one is faced with a cancer diagnosis, anxiety and stress can be overwhelming. There may also be loss of strength, mobility, lung capacity, and memory. Our nerves and endocrine system may be compromised, not to mention our appearance with hair loss, weight changes and surgical consequences. But when we show up on our mats, and engage in yoga, we can begin to feel empowered again. Yoga techniques to still the mind such as breathing, meditation, and visualization can help us to handle each moment as it comes. To make practice meaningful, involves taking the lessons off the mat and into our lives.

Yoga is available for people to start where they are to find something that will enrich their lives. Tracey’s journey is also relevant to broader questions of how each of us can find acceptance and connection with the life that we have—however painful, uncertain, or tender it may feel. The power of yoga includes opening to the experiences of oneness and joy, even when seriously ill, dying, or facing other sources of distress. Or as Tracey succinctly put it: “We all need the same thing—Love.”

I love you Tracey.

Read about Tracey’s yoga teacher, Wendy Campbell’s organization, Survive and Thrive, empowering cancer survivors through accessible yoga and mindfulness practice: http://www.wendycampbellyoga.com/survive-thrive

  • Follow her blog and be on the lookout for additional free resources.

Other Yoga Resources for People with Cancer:

References:

1. See for example: Bower, J.E., Garet, D., Sternlieb, B., Ganz, P.A., Irwin, M.R., Olmstead, R., & Greendale, G. (2011). Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Cancer, 118, 3766–3775. Or, Chen, S.M., Huang, W.T. & Chen, S.W. (2014). The effect of yoga exercise on improving depression, anxiety, and fatigue in women with breast cancer: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nursing Research, 22, 155–164. Or, Zhang, J., Yang, K.H., & Wang, C.M. (2012). Effects of yoga on psychologic function and quality of life in women with breast cancer: A meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18, 994–1002. doi:10.1089/acm.2011.0514

2. See, for example: Buffart, L.M., van Uffelen, J.G., Riphagen, I.I., Brug, J., van Mechelen, W., Brown, W.J., & Chinapaw, M.J. (2012). Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer, 12, 559. Or, Shiraz, I.M., Scherer, R.W., Snyder, C., Geigle, P., & Gotay, C. (2014). Are exercise programs effective for improving health-related quality of life among cancer survivors? A systematic review and meta-analysis [Online exclusive]. Oncology Nursing Forum, 41, E326–E342.

3. For data on the dramatic increase in studies on the effects of yoga on cancer outcomes, see: Cramer, H., Lauche, R., & Dobos, G. (2014). Characteristics of randomized controlled trials of yoga: A bibliometric analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 14, 328.

4. Examples of research across populations: Sprod, L., Fernandez, I., Janelsins, M., Peppone, L., Atkins, J., Giguere, J., & Mustian, K. (2015;2014;). Effects of yoga on cancer-related fatigue and global side-effect burden in older cancer survivors. Journal of Geriatric Oncology, 6(1), 8-14. Or, Moadel, A. B., Shah, C., Wylie-Rosett, J., Harris, M. S., Patel, S. R., Hall, C. B., & Sparano, J. A. (2007). Randomized controlled trial of yoga among a multiethnic sample of breast cancer patients: Effects on quality of life. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 25(28), 4387-4395.

5. Information about YogaNurse certification - http://www.yoganurse.com/

About the Author

Deborah Barrett, Ph.D.

Deborah Barrett, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW is a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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