Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty. A cancer diagnosis undoubtedly alters one’s life both physically and spiritually, in ways only a cancer survivor could fully understand. After speaking with several women who have beat their own cancer diagnosis, we discovered one common thread in their healing process: Yoga.
For these brave cancer survivors, yoga helped turn their fear into hope, anxiety into grounding, and uncertainty into a newfound determination to regain their sense of self. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing five incredible stories of overcoming cancer with yoga and reigniting their passion for life from within.
IDC — Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Stage 4. Hearing those words ring through my head. These words will be with me the rest of my life. Being in a room hearing those words was unfathomable. You've got the wrong person, this is a mistake..these are the thoughts which enter the mind once the diagnosis sinks in...how can this be?
After hearing those words, “I'm sorry, you have cancer,” I honestly didn't even think about yoga. All I thought about was my son. How will I tell him, when will I tell him? How the hell am I going to get this cancer out of me and beat it? I am not ready to leave this world yet, I will beat this monster! Then I sobbed for what seemed to be an eternity.
After the trauma and reality of "you have cancer" sunk in, I knew it was time to move forward. After 4 surgeries, a lymph node dissection, 26 Lymph nodes removed, Lympadema, HR2 Negative, 72 chemotherapy treatments, and 88 radiation treatments, I decided it was time to get back to being me. Come to find out it's not the same me.
Showing up to my favorite teacher Jenn McConnell’s class thinking I am still superwoman, my body showed up and told me differently. I was unable to achieve any of the familiar poses I was used to. I got so sick I had to leave the class. Being overcome with sadness, not being able to get back to my yoga practice, what would I do? I tried gentle, chair, nothing worked. The only pose I could achieve was 'savasana,' corpse pose!
I knew I had to do something. Not have yoga in my life? NO WAY! I needed yoga more than ever to help me get through this terrible time, so I set out on my own journey to find what worked for me. My journey started with diving into meditation & restorative yoga. Then evolved to some stretching and movement in a gentle way. Then I found Yin Yoga, & Yin saved my life.
Yin Yoga was a way for me to stretch and hold, apply breath work, and use the meditation techniques I had recently learned. Nerve endings die during chemo and the facia is also affected by the chemo. Yin Yoga helped to stretch the nerves which were regrowing, and allowing new blood flow into my body, beginning my healing journey.
Diving back into my yoga practice saved me, or maybe I saved myself. Whichever the case may be, I am grateful to be here on this earth. At the tail end of my treatments, I decided to enroll in Yoga Teacher training, which had been a lifelong dream for me. Once I walked through the doors of Yoga Bohemia that first day of training, I knew I was home.
Christina Reese, E-RYT 200, Blooming Lotus Yoga
I had been doing yoga prior to and up to the time when I was diagnosed with cancer, but during treatment I attended special gentle yoga classes for people with cancer. These classes were inspiring. I was able to compassionately reconnect with my body after surgery in a supportive environment with other women navigating a breast cancer diagnosis. I also attended yoga dance classes which freed us from self consciousness as we moved around one another in glittery hats and feather boas listening to music by the Supremes.
In the classes I was teaching in the Phoenix Rising style, where poses are held for a fairly long time, I was able to go deeply inward and assess the course of my life. The deep meditative state achieved in these classes helped me see clearly how to proceed with my life's purpose, offering healing work for animals. My inward journey allowed me to define my priorities, and see how to align my mind and my heart to do the work that I was meant to do. My self discovery in these classes inspired me to write a book about my life with animals.
Sally Morgan PT CST TTEAM, Author of Dances of the Heart - Connecting with Animals
In 2013 I was diagnosed with bilateral high grade triple negative breast cancer due to the BRCA gene mutation I did not know that I had inherited. My prognosis was dismal and treatment aggressive, including 4 months of dose chemo followed by a double mastectomy, removal of my tubes and ovaries and breast reconstruction surgery plus smaller surgeries. It was a grueling year.
Throughout it I did yoga and it is part of what I call the Essential Life Changes that saved my life. I was not new to yoga but my commitment to intensify my practice gave it a prominent place in my cancer treatment. Yoga helped calm my fears and anxiety, helped me to relax, stay focused positive and focused on recovery, meditate and pray. It comforted my ravaged body with the rhythmic flows and kept me feeling vital. I modified my practice after mastectomy but still did what I could until my pectoral muscles healed. I'm currently in the 5 year wait/watch hoping for remission, which seems probable, and my practice continues to sooth anxiety, calm my 'fight or flight' reactions to stress, and build vitality both physically and spiritually.
I found healing at yoga during breast cancer treatment at 34. I was bald, menopausal, very self-conscious and afraid of judgment, but I showed up anyway. Yoga helped me heal mentally by teaching mindfulness skills and how to stay with the present moment - to breathe and just be. Yoga also gave me the physical strength and stamina to endure chemo for 6 months, even as felt weak and broken. I became more centered in my body, grounded, confident, and self-aware. But what really changed was my emotional state.
A cancer diagnosis is like a bomb going off in your life. Everything is upended and traumatic. I had been depressed, anxious, afraid, and suicidal. Yoga helped me learn to sit with my emotions, allow them and thank them for showing me that something’s not ‘right,’ and to build emotional resilience so that I can handle anything life throws at me now. To put it simply, yoga saved my life. Almost 5 years later, I earned my own Yoga Teacher certificate and I teach others how to build resilience skills and self-compassion through my coaching practice, The Enlightened Badass.
I consider yoga as my lifesaver. In 2007, I was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. Immediately, I had surgery, followed by chemotherapy. Ovarian cancer is notorious for multiple recurrences. Knowing this, I had loads of extra stress and anxiety. In 2008, I took a leap of faith and went to a yoga class at a local gym. Right away I fell in love. Afterward I asked the instructor, “how can I get really good at this?” She replied the obvious—practice!! And there started my journey with yoga.
One sun salutation at a time, I noticed my body getting stronger and stronger. In downward dog, my legs were kicking nasty cancer cells. In warrior poses, my arms punched cancer away. Importantly, yoga taught me to breath and focus. I began experiencing much-needed calmness and ease. I was learning how to be kind to myself and patient with healing.
A decade after diagnosis, I believe a lifestyle filled with yoga, plant-based eating, and lots of gratitude has kept me cancer-free. And, to share my passion with others, I’ve become a certified yoga instructor.
Sally Lipsky (Ph.D. Education; Certificate Plant-Based Nutrition), Founder of PlantBasedEatingHub.com, Author of Beyond Cancer: The Powerful Effect of Plant-Based Eating, and certified yoga instructor
Thank you to each of these phenomenal yogis for sharing how they were able to overcome cancer with yoga, and may your stories continue to inspire others who are finding strength in their own practice. Has yoga helped you overcome a cancer diagnosis, or any other hardship in life? Sound off in the comments!