Yoga for Cancer
The epitome of the hard-driving, Type A, highly successful physician, Dr. Fair worked at California's Stanford Medical Center, Washington University in St. Louis, and for 13 years was chairman of the Department of Urology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, one of the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the country. A top-flight surgeon specializing in cancers of the prostate, bladder, testes, and kidney, he typically performed several surgeries a day at Sloan-Kettering, directed research projects, and administered the department. Reached at his home in Manhattan, Dr. Fair spoke about the alternative practices he now employs in dealing with his own condition.
"Yoga has made a tremendous change in my life!" he claims. He expresses warm enthusiasm for his yoga teacher, Lisa Bennett, of the Yoga Zone, who comes to his house once a week to lead him and his wife in a yoga session that lasts for an hour or more. Just as important is his meditation practice. He meditates every day and can point to junctures in the progress of his disease when meditation gave him crucial support.
While he could see the value of diet and exercise, initially Dr. Fair completely resisted the "California touchy-feely" practices of yoga and meditation. He was introduced to both by Dr. Dean Ornish, the noted proponent of lifestyle changes for heart patients. But Dr. Fair was not convinced that yoga would be helpful for him.
After his diagnosis in 1995, Dr. Fair underwent surgery and chemotherapy. He resumed his work schedule, but two years later the tumor recurred, and he was told his chances of surviving had dropped dramatically. "As my choices with conventional therapy diminished," he says, "and I saw that the scientific evidence showed some measurable benefit from yoga and meditation, that was my thrust to get started." At the urging of Dr. Ornish, he went to a retreat at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program near the Northern California coastal town of Bolinas. (The prototype for residential cancer healing programs, Commonweal has spawned Ting-Sha and similar retreats in several states.) There he learned from yoga teacher Waz Thomas and massage therapist Jnani Chapman, and took his new regimen back to Manhattan.
"I just love yoga," he says. "It helps my breathing, and gives me better flexibility and more energy." He admits that, true to his high-achiever personality, he began by trying to duplicate the perfect form of young, flexible yoga instructors and wound up frustrated. Bennett urged him to concentrate instead on his breathing as he did the postures. Soon, with her encouragement, he was able to relax in the poses; gradually he stretched and strengthened.
Dr. Fair's daily meditation brings him, he says, to "a whole new outlook on life. Meditation has taught me to keep in mind what's important and what's not." When his cancer recurred in August 1997, he was offered radical chemotherapy that might have shrunk his tumor but would not have eliminated it—and would certainly have made him very ill.