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February 4 is World Cancer Day.
The word cancer can instill fear in anyone not just the person who has it but also their family and loved ones. It puts your entire life in a state of doubt with your future hanging in the balance without knowing for how long you will be around. But the important thing to remember is cancer is not the end of the world, there are enough survivors who have beaten the dreaded disease and are still going strong. Here s a true story of a woman suffering from lung cancer and how yoga keeps her going despite her shortcomings. The survivor story is excerpted from the book Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors .
I like to have things planned. Call it being prepared, call it being a control freak, I ve always liked being ready rather than surprised. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I was diagnosed with lung cancer at age thirty-nine. Surprise!
Even more troubling, the cancer had an extra year-and-a-half head start because my busy doctor never told me that my CT scan revealed a suspicious node in my lung. After noticing a strange pain in my chest following a yoga headstand, I asked for a physical copy of the eighteen-month-old CT scan report and discovered what the doctor never read or told me. The CT scan report focused on a suspicious nodule with many characteristics that are consistent with cancer and called for further testing. With a disease like cancer, catching and treating the disease early can be a matter of life and death.
When questioned, the doctor admitted that somehow my case had slipped through the cracks. I had always had incredible faith in doctors and the medical system as a whole until I discovered this hole in the system. Now the news ripped a hole through my life.
I was the mother of a daughter at a new school, the wife of a husband starting up a new business, and I was in the middle of training for a new career as a yoga instructor. My whole world was so full of exciting change when the news of cancer changed my whole worldview. I had a potentially lifethreatening, time-sensitive medical condition that was given an unnecessary eighteen-month opportunity to take hold in my lung and spread throughout my body. Read these symptoms of lung cancer you should know.
From the time I finally received my scan results in the mail to the time I had my lung surgery to remove the nodule, I was devastated, furious, and petrified. I had to watch my daughter knowing that I may be dying. I smiled through my daughter s fifth birthday party not knowing if I would be at her sixth. I hoped my husband would be strong enough if he had to raise her without me. It was hard to think straight and stay off the computer researching what my possible fate might be.
A second CT scan found the nodule had grown over the last eighteen months not a good sign. Cancer grows. A PET scan lit up, also pointing toward malignancy. I was referred to a highly recommended thoracic surgeon in Los Angeles. He performed video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) to remove the nodule soon after.
On July 21, 2011, one-third of my left upper lung was removed along with four lymph nodes. Lab tests eventually led to a diagnosis of stage 1 mucinous adenocarcinoma with bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC) features. BAC is a unique subtype of lung cancer that seems to strike a higher demographic of young women than other forms of lung cancer.
Recovering from surgery was more difficult than I expected. I had terrible side effects from the pain medicines and ended up convulsing in my hospital bed. I could not stand on my legs or lift my left arm. I had never had surgery before and now I had a tube sticking out of my chest cavity draining fluids for days. Also read - why sexual problems need to be treated in lung cancer patients.
Through all the emotional and physical upheaval, I was fortunate to have an amazing support system. My husband never left my side and was truly my advocate and rock in a very confusing, frightening time. The yoga school where I was doing my teacher training was very flexible and I was able to simply postpone my graduation. My daughter was in summer camp and we had support from her old school in Los Angeles as well as her summer camp in Las Vegas. We were lucky to have the love and support of our families and friends to help us through.
After surgery I was unable to drive a car or lift anything close to heavy; being a stay-at-home mom made that very difficult. I had my best friend, Lane, come out from Minneapolis to stay with us for a week to help out.
Friends sent us food, picked up our mail, and sent encouraging words. I was incredibly frustrated and upset with the limitations of my physical body and the pain that I was in. It took a full eight weeks to recover, but the one thing that helped me the most with my focus, my hopes, and my healing process was yoga.
From my yoga practice over the years I knew how yoga could help me, but I was too much of a mess to focus and help myself. I needed someone to guide me. I was lucky to find a healing yoga class taught by an amazing teacher named Helen. She has volunteered twice a week for seven years and her classes are packed. I was afraid and angry as I walked through her doors, and as she turned down the lights and rang her meditation bell, the tears finally began to flow. Her warm, nurturing manner and genuine concern for me was overwhelming, and I finally felt like I belonged somewhere in my newly sick body. After class, a young woman named Alice came up to me and introduced herself, and we have become very close friends ever since.
Her twenty-year journey with cancer has been incredibly tough, but she finds solace in the healing yoga classes as well. She has been a true inspiration to me.
Yoga teaches us that we are exactly where we are supposed to be: an impossible idea to believe in when you are a cancer survivor; however, a beautiful idea to hold onto when the rest of the world wants you to get well soon!
Recovery from cancer can take a long time, and I don t feel like we actually recover as much as we learn ways to cope. Yoga teaches us to listen to our bodies and they will eventually heal in their own time. Read how pollution is increasing risk of lung cancer.
When I went to yoga after my surgery, for the first time I could not take a full breath due to the loss of lung capacity, and I was in too much pain to lie on my back. I couldn t lift my left arm and I couldn t wear a bra or stop crying. Nobody treated me like I was different. I looked forward to going to that class every Tuesday and Thursday because I could breathe, I could relax,
I could cry, and I could nurture my body, and slowly my body began to return to normal.
It has been six months since my diagnosis, and not only have I returned to my regular yoga classes, but I have become certified in teaching yoga to cancer survivors as well as getting a children s yoga teacher certification. Having led guided imagery classes in Las Vegas and currently teaching three kids yoga classes a week at my daughter s school, I have been a substitute teacher for the very same healing yoga classes that brought me back to life, and I will soon be teaching children with cancer.
The cancer survivors I have met are some of the happiest people I have ever known. They have formed a community of support and love and no one was scared of talking to me since they had all been down a similar path. They knew what it felt like to not be the person you were before and would never be again. We will always be cancer survivors and it has affected all of us.
Cancer decides when it comes back and what it feels like doing to us. It rules our lives and we need every tool we can find to fight it in ways that will support our mental happiness and our immune system. We need to be able to sleep and not be filled with anxiety, worry, and stress, or we will end up even sicker. I like to have a plan, but there is no plan. I will not know what cancer decides to do until it shows up on a CT scan or makes me sick enough to feel symptoms. It is the enemy and not even the doctors have a guarantee that they will be able to help me. I have a rare diagnosis, and there isn t even a proven medicine to help me if the cancer decided to grow. I have been given a five year survival rate of 60 to 80 percent. So I might be at my daughter s tenth birthday or I might not. My breathing might deteriorate or it might not. I may need chemo or a lung transplant, or I might not.
Yoga has helped me to focus on what I know I can do. I can help other cancer survivors feel better through relaxing breathing exercises, guided visualization, yoga asanas, and the loving support of community. I was lucky to find the y4c training in New York City led by Tari Prinster. I was also pleasantly surprised when a young cancer survivor and fellow yoga teacher named Nancy, who I had previously met through a mutual friend, unrolled her yoga mat and sat down across from me in the very same teacher training. We had bonded through our cancer journey and now were on the same path to give back to this amazing community of survivors through yoga. When you have cancer you no longer feel part of normal society. It is like being exiled to Planet Cancer. It is extremely important to find other people like you who you can share your fears with as well as any advice on treatments or ways to cope with such strong feelings. That is why it is so crucial to have classes specifically for cancer survivors.
Yoga allows me to breathe. Yoga quiets my mind. Yoga allows me to move my body only as far as it should in that moment. Yoga has given me direction, a supportive community, and a way to share my joy of yoga with the world.
I am grateful for the gift of learning from Tari and the opportunity to share the teachings and joy of yoga with others. Namaste.
Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors is authored by Tari Prinster and published by Simon and Schuster. Click here to buy the book. Watch this space for more excerpts.
Image source: Getty Images
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