In this interview, Timothy McCall, MD (author of Yoga as Medicine), talks about his new book: Saving My Neck, which is a deeply personal and inspiring memoir of his healing journey during which he integrated the best of western and eastern medicine.
Nina: Your new book Saving My Neck: A Doctor’s East/West Journey through Cancer is a very personal memoir about your experience of being diagnosed with and treated for oral cancer. Can you tell us a little bit about the type of cancer you had and the dangers it posed to you?
Timothy: I had squamous cell cancer in my mouth caused by HPV, the same virus that causes cervical cancer. As is often the case with this cancer, by the time I noticed a slight enlargement of one of my tonsils, it had already metastasized to lymph nodes in my neck. The biggest risk, as with most cancers, is that it might kill you. But I came to realize that the other big risk was to the tissues in my head and neck due to the toxic effects of the radiation and chemotherapy used to treat it. That’s what led me to the title “Saving My Neck,” because I realized that I didn’t just want to save my neck figuratively, that is survive the cancer, but also literally save my neck, by trying to minimize the short and long-term side effects of the treatment.
Nina: As a Western-trained medical doctor, a yoga therapist, and a student of Ayurveda, when it came to your own cancer, you decided to combine evidence-based Western cancer treatments with holistic Eastern treatments. Can you briefly explain the thinking behind that?
Timothy: While there are no guarantees, the cancer I had is potentially curable with conventional medical treatments. I felt I was unlikely to get cured just by using yoga, Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and other holistic approaches. But many patients who get treated conventionally for this kind of cancer wind up with lifelong side effects, like a persistently dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, rotting teeth, mouth pain, and other nasty symptoms. I felt that by skillfully combining conventional and holistic approaches, I could potentially both increase my odds of getting cured and lower my risk of side effects, particularly some of those unpleasant aftereffects.
Nina: Although you used a whole range of different Eastern treatments and techniques, I’m going to focus on yoga because this is a yoga blog. So, tell us a bit a bit about the yoga practices you chose to support you through your treatments and recovery.
Timothy: I’ve had a daily yoga practice for more than 20 years that includes asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation, which to the extent possible I continued through treatment and into recovery. This helped me at every stage of this process, though I often had to modify what I was doing in response to what was going on.
For example, I became anemic due to the treatments. With a lower red blood count, not as much oxygen could be transported to the tissues, so I needed to back off some of the strong breathing practices I had been doing which require holding the breath for many seconds at a time. As I recovered though, I was able to reestablish these pranayama practices, and eventually go even deeper than I had before. That proved to be incredibly helpful to helping me calm the “twitchy” nervous system I’ve had my whole life (probably due to early childhood trauma). Beyond making me feel better, I feel like it can only improve my odds of the cancer not recurring.
Nina: At your very lowest points, when you were terribly ill from the chemotherapy and radiation treatments or at an emotional low point, what kind of yoga practices were you able to do and what helped you the most?
Timothy: A few weeks into treatment I barely had enough energy to lift my arms over my head. Some days I was too weak to sit up to meditate. All I could do those days was restoratives, but even there I had to modify. Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall pose with the butt on a bolster) has been my go-to restorative pose for years, but that position caused fluid to back up in my throat, which caused me to cough. My mouth was so sore at that point that coughing was unbelievably painful, so I had to give up the pose and was only able to reintroduce it many weeks after I finished treatment.
The restorative pose that proved most useful to me was Supported Bharadvajasana. It was restful and caused a beautiful stretch of the tissues of the neck. One of the bad aftereffects of radiation therapy is that is can lead to a stiffening, so-called fibrosis, of the neck. I felt by stretching the neck this way (with my head pointing in the same direction as my knees), I might also be helping to prevent that, too.
Nina: Now that you have recovered, how has your understanding of yoga and your own practice been changed by your experiences?
Timothy: I very much feel the experience took me much deeper into my practice. Beyond my own life, I can see those benefits have had ripple effects on my teaching and practice of yoga therapy.
Nina: Our readers include many people who have or have had cancer, people with chronic diseases of all kinds, people with chronic pain, and so on as well as people who teach these populations. What would you say to them—as someone who has been through it yourself—about the value of yoga for these conditions?
Timothy: One of the main reasons I wrote this book was that I felt like I’d learned so much along the way, I just had to share it. This is not a how to book. What I wanted to demonstrate to readers is how a holistically-minded physician goes about figuring out what to do at every step of the way when you are presented with decisions for which there are no clear answers.
In the case of holistic approaches like yoga and Ayurveda, it’s not that there are studies that suggest it does or doesn’t work for what I was dealing with. In almost every holistic treatment I was considering, no studies had ever been done. This is the reality most of us face. We have to make decisions based on incomplete information. I opted to try things that there was some reason to believe might help as long as they wouldn’t interact in a bad way with any of the conventional cancer treatments. So, I fasted before chemo (which completely eliminated nausea and vomiting). I did yoga and acupuncture. But mostly stayed away from all megadose vitamins and dietary supplements, which are more likely to interact adversely with drugs.
Nina: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Timothy: One of the ideas of holism is that whatever stage of health you’re at, you can always do things to try to improve it. In Western medicine, doctors just try to bring people back to being free of a disease (or at least control its symptoms) to a point where their scans or blood tests are good. But in yoga and Ayurveda and other holistic disciplines, we aim much higher.
Many people talk about getting back to the life that they had before they got cancer. I feel like I took the challenge of cancer to go deeper into my practice, deeper into my psychological and spiritual work — which has been part of my yoga practice for years. The goal was not just to survive but, if possible, to thrive. And it has worked. I am more balanced and stronger psychologically and physically than I was before I was diagnosis. My life is better now in so many ways.
As a yoga therapist, I want to help people to feel better, find joy, gratitude, and connection in their lives, to live a life with purpose, and to take advantage of however much time they get on this planet as best they can. That kind of healing is possible, whether you are cured or not. And the more you stay with your practice, the deeper that healing can go.
Nina: That’s so very well said, Timothy. Thank you so much for this interview!
Timothy McCall, MD is a board-certified internist, Yoga Journal’s medical editor since 2002 and the author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. He practiced medicine in the Boston area for a dozen years before devoting himself full-time in the late 1990s to yoga therapy. He has studied with many of the world’s leading yoga teachers, including BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar. In 2005, Timothy began his studies with a traditional Ayurvedic doctor, Chandukutty Vaidyar, and spent more than a year at his clinic in Kerala, India. His latest book is Saving My Neck: A Doctor’s East/West Journey through Cancer. For more information see DrMcCall.com.