Yoga for Cancer
Ann has been living with illness for a year, undergoing intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments for Stage IIIB breast cancer, knowing the statistics give her only a 40 percent chance of surviving the next five years. Extremely thin, her hair just barely growing back, she says she does many complementary therapies in support of standard medical procedures.
Ann had been doing yoga for 20 years, most recently in a class in Santa Cruz, California, led by Teri Mehegan. But when she began the radical radiation and chemotherapy treatments, her strength declined so much that "sometimes I had to drag myself into the yoga class and just lie on the floor. Teri knew what was happening with me and always greeted me with a big hug and a few loving words. Sometimes, she would acknowledge me verbally during class by saying, 'You may not want to do this, Ann,' or 'You might want to do the posture this way, Ann.' When she came around to adjust people, she might pat me or help me get into an easier position. Then as each class progressed and I did the postures, it was amazing how strong I would feel. During the rest of my day, I could barely stand up, barely walk, but I would be able to hold the Triangle Pose, for instance, for as long as everyone else! The only way I can explain that is that yoga awakened my energy, and maybe I was getting energy from the other people there too." Yoga, she adds, "was a very important part of my healing."
"How do you think the healing occurs?" I ask.
Ann pauses for a moment, then says, "It happens on three levels. On the physical, the yoga gives me increased energy; on the psychological level, I always feel acknowledged and even cherished, mostly by the instructor but also by the other students; and spiritually, it gives me a time to reflect, to go inside." Ann describes the inward, quiet time at the end of the session—when the students lie still and Teri leads them in a short meditation—as invaluable.
My own experience echoes Ann's. When I was most ill and depleted from chemotherapy treatments, I attended a body-movement class. Always, no matter how terrible I had felt upon entering the session, I would leave feeling centered and energized. I began to believe that no matter how sick we may be—in pain, nauseated, exhausted, diseased—there is within us a healthy body or a healthy being. For many cancer patients, yoga offers techniques that allow us to support and awaken this vital part of ourselves.
A Skeptic Signs On
Many medical doctors tend to dismiss the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation, opting to stay within the safe though limited enclave of conventional medical practices. Sometimes it is only the crisis of his or her own incurable cancer that can bring a doctor to the yoga mat. A few years ago, Dr. William Fair was one such skeptic. But, as an October 26, 1998 New Yorker article reported, he now incorporates complementary therapies—including yoga and meditation, vitamins, and a high-soy, low-fat diet—to help him live with his own incurable colon cancer.