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Yoga teacher Anjali Rao distinctly remembers her breast cancer diagnosis at 37. “I remember the call that came from the doctor’s office after my first mammogram. He said the test showed microcalcifications and early stage breast cancer,” says Anjali.
Anjali had decided to test early at her doctor’s recommendation because of her family history. After consulting with a few doctors she opted for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. “It was a rather radical choice but I made it keeping in mind my young age and young family.”
Anjali attended her first yoga class while recovering from her surgeries. After the class, she knew something had shifted. “I wanted to share yoga with other people going through cancer diagnosis and treatment.” A year after her first yoga class, she took her first yoga teacher training.
In 2018, Anjali completed her 500 hour YTT and an apprenticeship with Lorien Neargarder, her mentor and now friend, who specializes in teaching yoga for cancer patients. Soon, Anjali started teaching gentle yoga to patients and survivors at cancer care programs. “I have learned as much—if not more—from those I have taught; about life and living, about grief and gratitude, about little joys and big victories, whether that’s celebrating the end of someone’s chemo or going back to work, or taking a family vacation.”
How yoga helps ease physical and emotional suffering
As a wellness consultant at Hoag Hospital who works with patients, survivors, and thrivers, I’ve seen firsthand how many cancer patients experience a sense of disconnection with their bodies during and after treatment. I’ve also seen how yoga can help:
Asana taught by compassionate and trauma-informed teachers can make a difference in the quality of life post-surgery and ongoing treatment. “Asana and pranayama help us connect to our bodies, to our minds, to our nervous system,” says Anjali. Gentle movement can improve range of motion, increase circulation, reduce edema, help in relieving pain, and regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response.
When done in a group, yoga can also help mitigate the sense of isolation and loneliness that many experience during cancer treatment. “I have seen people volunteer to transport their yoga class friends to treatments, and connect with each other beyond the yoga class, something that can greatly add to the quality of life of a patient,” says Anjali.
Yoga philosophy can also help people who are going through treatment. Ahimsa (non-harming) can help patients hold themselves with compassion, rather than feel like they need to heal according to others’ timelines. Our society places a huge emphasis on productivity, which leads some patients to feel shame or guilt for taking time to recover. Svadhyaya (self awareness) can help patients know when and how to step back and care for themselves; satya (truth-telling) reminds them to be honest with friends, loved ones, and colleagues about their needs.
Having a loving and caring sangha community can be an empowering force for those who are going through breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship, says Anjali.
See also: 12 Poses for Breast Health
Other ways to lower your cancer risk
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and impacts 1 in 8 women in America. Women like Anjali, who have a family history of breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. But whether you have a family history or not, there are positive steps you can take to lower your risk.
These steps are particularly important for Black women, who are disproportionately impacted by breast cancer and have a 42 percent higher mortality rate compared with white women. Black women have a 39 percent higher recurrence rate than white women and those under 35 die at twice the rate of non-Black women in their same age group. Black women are three times as likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) as white women, and have the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group (31 percent), says breast cancer surgeon Monique Gary, D.O.
No matter your family history or background, these steps can reduce your breast cancer risk.
Mammograms save lives, says Sadia Khan, D.O., program director of integrative breast oncology at Hoag Hospital. She strongly encourages women to start screening at age 40. Dr Khan also advises you to know your own breast “normal” and report any major changes—lumps, bumps, nipple discharge, nipple inversion, skin dimpling—to your physician.
In a 2016 meta-analysis, the most physically active women had a 12–21 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who were the least physically active. Just 20 minutes per day (150 minutes weekly) of moderate cardiovascular exercise can reduce your risk by up to 20 percent.
Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages—beer, wine, and liquor—increases a woman’s risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA. Compared to those who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10 percent for each additional drink women regularly have each day.