It felt like the most ironic turn of events of all time when I found out I had a 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, a large tumor developed in my breast and spread to local lymph nodes, and 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, for complaints like 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 (including much more than asana alone) 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 has to change us for the worse, like we will have physical limitations, weaknesses, 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 (which seems so scary and horrible) can actually turn into a wonderful opportunity for growth and optimization of health in body, mind, and spirit. Your “new normal” can be the best version of you yet!
Study of the yamas and the niyamas 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 the 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 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. And mantra meditation literally took chemotherapy-induced abdominal pain away, getting me through some very tough days on the couch. 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 amazing things like shift the balance of our nervous system toward rest and healing, and away from conditions of chronic stress.
In these ways and more, yoga can support us through the breast cancer experience, helping us connect to our true selves, to a place of peace, of gratitude for every day – including the tough ones, and of reverence for the beauty that is this life. I hope to help others examine how yoga might benefit them in their journeys. This site will hopefully allow me to reach anyone who is interested in learning more.