I didn’t have a serious Yoga practice until I had breast cancer in 2011, although I had gone to a few Yoga classes here and there. My integrative oncologist suggested doing Yoga, among other things, to help me stay in remission.
For those who don’t know, integrative oncologists “integrate” conventional oncology with alternative techniques. They believe there are two parts to cancer care. The first part is what conventional oncology does—some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormones. Conventional oncology is interested mainly in killing cancer, not in preventing it, nor in preventing recurrences. They will give you tests to determine whether the cancer has returned, but if it has, it will likely have metastasized to other organs and no longer be curable.
The second part is to change the patient’s “terrain” to make it less hospitable for cancer. My integrative oncologist gives me regular blood and saliva tests to measure the factors that help cancer grow, and we correct whatever is off through a combination of nutrition, supplements, exercise, stress reduction, and avoidance of environmental carcinogens. Yoga, as a mind-body practice, spans the categories of exercise and stress reduction. Researchers advise 4-7 hours of moderate to intense exercise per week to reduce the risk of breast cancer. This is because exercise controls blood sugar and limits levels of insulin growth factor, a hormone that can affect breast cells. I also have two active dogs, so walking them daily, combined with my Yoga practice, gives me the right number of hours.
As I was already in my early 70s, I was looking for a form of Yoga that would be good for both body and mind, yet not too difficult for someone my age. In some of my past experiences, I had ended up watching from the sidelines when the rest of the class did postures I couldn’t. So I asked around, and friends highly recommended Prime of Life Yoga, a program founded by Larry Payne, Ph.D., which offers an overall lifestyle approach to Yoga. It includes asana, everyday biomechanics, management of common aches and pains, and weight reduction, using Yoga, gait training, stress reduction and sleeping tips.
I was a little nervous, but I decided to check it out. I actually ended up loving the classes! What I appreciate most is how the physical practice is harmonized with breath and mindfulness. Because the class includes some Yoga teachers in training, we have all levels of skill, and ages ranging from 20s to 80s. But the atmosphere is completely non-competitive and supportive, which is important to me, and I leave each class feeling mentally and physically calmer. The weekly classes give me a deeper understanding of my body so, thanks to Yoga, I am more aware of my posture and breath when doing other things, such as walking or sitting. I also do additional Yoga stretches at home.
Cancer is perhaps the most feared disease of our time, and having cancer is stressful, as is cancer treatment. While we can’t say that stress “causes” cancer, we do know from both animal and human studies that stress is a tumor “promoter,” which means that if cancer is already in the body, stress will help it spread. That’s why Yoga, which helps manage stress, plays an important role in recovery as well as staying in remission. It meshes very well with my long-term meditation practice, which helps me manage negative thoughts and emotions, and I get a feeling of fulfillment that I would not get simply from cardio exercises.
I recently wrote The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer—which just won its tenth book award—about how breast cancer patients can stay in remission by making various lifestyle changes which can include adding Yoga and meditation. It’s a guide for breast cancer patients who desire to go beyond conventional breast cancer care, but it’s also for friends, family, and loved ones. Based on research I uncovered during my breast cancer journey, it offers detailed information that goes well beyond what most doctors provide. The book’s purpose is to help others make an informed decision about their own breast cancer treatment and to help them remain in remission. [Note: The foreword to the book was written by Dwight L. McKee, MD, who was on the medical staff of Integral Health Services—the first integrative health clinic in North America—which was founded by Swami Satchidananda and Sandra McLanahan, MD in 1975.]
My Yoga classes have become an important part of my journey. Besides helping me stay me in remission for 7 years so far, Yoga has helped me manage stress and live a more fulfilled life.
About the Author:
Janet Maker, Ph.D., is author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer: Take Charge of Your Recovery and Remission, winner of 10 book awards. It is a comprehensive guide for women seeking to understand the range of options for breast cancer care, providing resources and information they need to make the best decisions about their own treatment and the best ways to stay in remission. For more information: https://twgbreastcancer.com/