Yoga and Breast Cancer Recovery Go Hand in Hand: Meet Jessica
Perhaps you have considered yoga as you recover from breast cancer. If so, you’re not alone – hundreds, if not thousands of patients do the same. We talked to Jessica, a yoga and Pilates instructor who kept active during her treatment and recovery.
I was diagnosed on 17 May 2002 – a date I won’t forget anytime soon. I was 33 years old. I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumour in my left breast, and a procedure called sentinel node biopsy to check if the disease had spread to my lymph nodes. Those results were positive, as were subsequent tests and scans that showed the cancer had already spread to my liver. My disease was in Stage IV at primary diagnosis.
I didn’t have radiotherapy, but I did have 49 weeks of chemotherapy. In that time I was on three different combinations of drugs. The second regimen was for a clinical trial that involved the continuous infusion of the drug – a 500cc bag of it hooked up to my port, with a portable pump. I carried it around for six months in a hip bag and called it ‘Ivy’.
I was able to carry on teaching during my recovery, which meant a lot to me. I’m very fortunate that I didn’t experience the severe side effects of chemo that many women do, like nausea and severe fatigue, but I was, of course, bald as a bowling ball! During chemo, my blood counts dropped a bit low so I wasn’t able to do vigorous aerobic exercise. But I was still able to teach my Pilates classes with a little modifying of my own activity, and yoga is perfect during breast cancer recovery because it can be very gentle. I always looked forward to teaching because the people in my classes have been (and still are) so supportive and encouraging throughout this experience. Teaching helped me maintain a sense of normality during such a chaotic time.
I was lucky in that I felt empowered at being able to continue to be physically active – although I completely understand that the call of the sofa and a warm blanket is strong when you’re going through treatment! Just being physically able to teach reinforced my confidence that I was still strong and healthy, cancer or not. Also, the support and encouragement I received from friends, colleagues, clients and the people in my classes really helped me stay positive.
Of course, this was an extremely stressful time with lots of ups and downs. For me, the most difficult aspect of dealing with a serious diagnosis was the psychological and emotional element.
Mind and body
I’m convinced that because I never felt ‘sick’ or physically compromised, I was able to stay focused and really believe in my complete return to health… and hair! It is amazing how strong and resilient the human body is, even in the face of a disease like breast cancer and powerful drugs like chemotherapy.
Pilates and yoga helped me recover from breast cancer by addressing the physical needs of my body to stay strong and conditioned throughout my treatment. Also, both forms of exercise require you to be ‘connected’ mentally – aware of how your body is working. The mind has to stay focused on the activity, so there’s no room in your head to obsess about being a cancer patient. It was really helpful to give my brain a break and just focus on the physical activity. And again, the yoga helped reinforce that I was strong and healthy, which carried over into mental confidence and peace.
While yoga and breast cancer recovery go hand in hand in many respects, you do have to be mindful not to over-tax yourself during treatment. Your body already has a lot of work to do to repair and heal itself, so you must be careful not to add to that burden with vigorous exercise or unnecessary stress. That said, I view exercise, stress management, and physical health and wellbeing as part of my prescription for continued health – an insurance that if I should experience a recurrence, my body will be strong enough to endure again. I’ve always said that if I have to do chemo again, I can handle it, but I’d really prefer not to.
Never give up
One of my regular yoga clients is a breast cancer survivor. We often talk about the trials and tribulations of living in the aftermath of this disease. She had a bilateral mastectomy with tram flap reconstruction – as a result, she lost a significant amount of her core strength, though she’s made incredible improvements using yoga throughout her breast cancer recovery to restore strength and balance to her torso. She’s one of my greatest success stories.
One of the kindest things I’ve been told by people who take my class is that I’ve inspired them, and that my staying active and visible is a good example for other women who may have to face this disease. I’ve had clients tell me that watching me teach a Pilates class bald and with an intravenous drip actively infusing drugs has motivated them to push harder, challenge themselves a bit more and never give up.
Finding a balance
Pilates and yoga are more than just exercise; both encourage finding and maintaining balance in your life — beyond the physical aspect. Even when you’re completely consumed with a frightening diagnosis, it is important to still take the time to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Cancer, and all that comes with it, is only a small part of the person. It does not have to define and dominate your life. My advice to other women going through this is to find confidence in your ability to recuperate, heal and return to health.