Contributor: Christine Thompson
Even in the best of circumstances it’s no small feat getting your life back after twice being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. But each time, yoga practice helped with recovery. First, it was yoga asana that helped make sitting in meditation more comfortable. Then, with a more serious diagnosis and aggressive treatment, yoga therapeutics. facilitated healing and recovery.
Leucadia resident and Iyengar Yoga Center of North County (IYNC) student Mel Gould, 59, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. Mel wanted to sit in a simple cross-legged posture for meditation as she coped with surgery and recovery. Even though she was slim and fit, her stiff inner groins made it difficult to sit comfortably this way. The Sanskrit word for this pose is Svastikasana. The name means peace and auspiciousness.
With a little help from her yoga buddy
Mel’s good friend, Narges Heidari, also an IYNC practitioner, recommended the Center. And Mel began attending yoga classes once or twice a week.
By 2009, Mel’s yoga practice had progressed to the point she was comfortable and confident in headstand, (the Sanskrit word for this pose is Sirsasana), with the wall for support. She was even beginning to learn to stand on her head in the middle of the room.
Then, after completing a five-year course of the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen, a more virulent form of breast cancer was discovered. Because of her family history (two maternal aunts both had the disease), Mel decided to have bilateral mastectomies, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.
Both breasts and lymph nodes on one side were removed. Four months of aggressive chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery followed.
With her first breast cancer diagnosis, Mel decided right away not to ask, “Why me?” It was the same the second time. She would not bemoan her genetic propensity for the disease. Instead, Mel is grateful for the loving support and care of family and friends, a good job with excellent health insurance and flexible employers.
She’s grateful, too, for yoga and yoga therapeutics. Both have proved to be life-changing, life-enhancing practices.
Yoga therapeutics help with courage and confidence
“It was way scarier the second time around,” Mel admits. “But when something happens you can decide you’re going to give up, or you can decide you’re going to get back to where you were,” she said.
“Carolyn told me, ‘You can get back to where you were before,’ and she’s right! But it does take effort. You have to work at it. You have to make that commitment that you’re going to go for it.”
She again began attending the Thursday afternoon therapeutics class that IYNC Director Carolyn Belko has offered since the Center opened in Encinitas in 2003. She followed a specific sequence for her level of practice.
In his compassionate wisdom, our Guruji, B.K.S.Iyengar, has developed a yoga sequence specifically for women who have had mastectomies. It helps improve range of motion, flexibility and endurance.
Mel followed a specific sequence for her level of practice and what she was to endure before surgery, during chemotherapy, then after chemotherapy and before and after reconstructive surgery. Each time the poses and sequence were modified for her.
“I’ve made huge progress since I started back,” Mel said. “The yoga poses are all very restorative and helped my body begin stretching out. I did have to push it, but it was never painful or grueling or anything. I enjoyed it. We just took it slow and I practiced exactly what was given.”
Mel’s yoga therapeutics practice included supported and modified standing poses, forward extensions, back bends, inversions and restorative yoga poses.
Within about four weeks of beginning her yoga therapeutics practice, Mel was “chomping at the bit” to be back in “regular” yoga class. But she stayed with the therapeutics practice for almost 12 weeks after her reconstructive surgery until Carolyn gave her the nod to resume regular yoga practice. Now Mel usually attends Stan Williams’ Saturday 11 a.m. Level 1-2 class and Carolyn’s Tuesday 5 p.m. Level 1 class.
Modified yoga poses bring full benefits
As is the case with many yoga practitioners, some of Mel’s yoga poses are modified to accommodate her body’s needs. No matter. She still receives the full benefits of each pose. And she’s thrilled with her progress.
“I’m really noticing huge differences in how surgery on your torso impacts your body. You’re just so stiff and so closed, especially on the side where they took lymph nodes. But by doing everything that was given, I’m getting a lot more opening and range of motion. It’s really quite amazing.
“So I have no doubt I’ll be able to get back to where I was before surgery in both my ability to practice and in my ability to continue to get better and better at yoga.
“Yoga therapy has made a huge difference. Carolyn is so caring and she knows exactly what’s right for every person’s individual needs. I don’t know how she keeps it all straight. There are so many people with so many problems. But she keeps it all straight. That’s the beautiful thing about her.”
Below are some links to articles and research about yoga therapeutics and cancer:
BreastCancer.org: “In studies of women with breast cancer, yoga has been shown to reduce fatigue and improve quality of sleep, physical vitality, and overall quality of life.”
EarthTimes.org: “The importance of viewing a patient’s mind-body balance as an interwoven unit – one that needs to be treated in an holistic way – has been highlighted by a new study, It looked into the benefits of yoga for those undergoing treatment for breast cancer.”
MDAnderson.org Cancer Center: “MD Anderson study first to compare benefits of mind-body practices to simple stretching exercises”
Illnois.edu: “After breast cancer surgery, increased self-consciousness and perceptions of disfigurement prompt some women to shy away from involvement in group fitness … a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois and Indiana University indicates that participating in group yoga sessions can help female breast cancer survivors overcome self-consciousness about their appearance and self-imposed limitations on physical activities after surgery…”