Revisiting Yoga After Cancer: Finally Coming Around

Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.

Oh, the moves I could do!

I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.

High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.

Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.

Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.

Then I got cancer.

And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.

Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.

But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.

I have made space in my life for yoga.

And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.

When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.

So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.

My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.

What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.

Invisible Effects: Body Image, Part 3

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about breast loss (which I ended up not having to deal with) and how strongly I equated breasts with being female. In Part 2, it was about my fear of having no control over my body and being susceptible to weight gain as a cancer survivor.

In Part 3, I’m writing that my body reacted in a way completely opposite of what I feared, and I managed to regain some semblance of control.

As mentioned, many women with breast cancer, particularly those whose tumors are hormone receptor positive like mine, put on weight. On top of the “my-out-of-control-body-is-killing-me” feelings brought about by cancer, the threat of runaway weight gain added to my frustration.

Yes, this was another example of how, throughout my fact-finding research, I took to heart what I read and immediately assumed that if it happened to others, it was also going to happen to me. Except that it didn’t. Just as how statistically I shouldn’t have gotten breast cancer, I also shouldn’t have ended up almost 10 pounds below where I started pre-diagnosis.

My body is quite reactive. If you’ve read my posts about how I respond to anxiety, you know that I shed weight quickly. I am not an emotional eater; I am an emotional non-eater, and more often than not don’t have to fight cravings. I have to fight a lack of appetite

As weird as this may sound, the resulting weight loss was one of the strongest indicators that I wasn’t completely out of control, that my body hadn’t completely turned against me. And more than that, it was another reminder that my situation was not typical. So by maintaining a very doable 6 day/week workout schedule, I broke through the mentality that what others experienced was necessarily what I would.

Right side of my ribcage. I can see my serratus and external obliques, but have to focus on building strength, not losing weight.

In addition, and arguably more important is the fact that cancer recurrence and episodes of lymphedema have been associated with higher weight levels (see this Susan Koman web article addressing this issue, including journal references). According to a bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) body fat monitor, I’m sitting at about 20% body fat. The actual number doesn’t really matter, since these monitors are notorious for being inaccurate. What matters is that those numbers are stable and that I’m able to build muscle.

What also matters is that with my level of activity both pre- and post-diagnosis, recovery has been quite good. I feel strong. I feel lean and fit. My sense of self-efficacy is high. And I’m finally able to exhale after holding my breath about all the things that were happening to my body.

Piece by piece, I’m reclaiming my physical self again. At that same time, I’ve still got a lot to sort out in my head. I know that keeping my body fat in check doesn’t mean that I’m protected from cancer, despite what numerous news reports suggest. It makes me uncomfortable being bombarded with that message, though. According to the December 20, 2018 National Health Statistics Report (Fryer et al. (2018)), the average woman in the U.S. is obese. In the interest of public health, the “lose weight” message is trumpeted constantly. Every time I’m exposed to that, my perfectionism kicks in and I have to fight the urge to clamp down on my fitness and nutrition.

Being an outlier doesn’t gain me much sympathy, and it does comes with its own challenges. In the process of sorting out everything that’s happened to me, I’m working to keep an even keel going forward and not go to extremes. As with everything, moderation.

Invisible Effects: Body Image, Part 2

Oddly enough, one of the things that scared me about cancer was that it threatened all the work I’d put into my body. Being a bit under six feet tall since my teenage years, I was called “big” a lot whether or not I was overweight. At 16, I went through a phase of disordered eating. That passed, but I retained a sensitivity to how I was perceived by others. Always, I was fearful of being judged, and that pushed me towards perfectionism.

Fast-forward to 2017 and my diagnosis. When I started researching breast cancer, one thing that struck me was that the information I found didn’t mesh with my conception of what cancer was, in terms of what the treatment did to the patient. I had always thought of cancer treatment as having a wasting effect on the sufferer. But then I read of the propensity that many breast cancer patients had for putting on excess weight, not only throughout chemo, but also due to taking estradiol-blocking medications like Tamoxifen.

Wait, what? Gaining weight? But I’d always thought that cancer patients lost weight! Sure enough, google “breast cancer weight gain” and you get a lot of entries from reputable sources that warn about this tendency to pack on weight. My Nurse Navigator echoed that point, noting that many women “put on 10-15 pounds.”

Many decisions in my life have been motivated by a fear of being judged.

This provoked a lot of frustration. I had established excellent diet and fitness habits for the very purpose of building strength and endurance and avoiding the weight gain that accompanies advancing age. I had kept emotion out of my food choices (kudos to my mother for being careful about not connecting food and emotion). During my time as a stay-at-home-mom, I’d obtained a highly-respected personal trainer certification because I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about. My standards were high, but even if I couldn’t attain my version of “perfection”, I put in 100% effort and that made me feel good.

And then, cancer. Despite doing everything I could think of to maintain peak health, I still had not been able to prevent the development of my tumor. That was extremely unsettling. But for me, having my whole body shape change as a result of this was almost worse.

Predictions of the future raced through my mind: I was going to lose my lean mass, lose my fitness and put on ten or more pounds. I would be judged for “letting myself go”. None of this would be under my control. Just like the cancer, it was all happening to me, and as far as I was concerned it was bound to ruin my life, whether or not it actually killed me.

However, as with so many other things related to my cancer, this didn’t go the way statistics predicted. And that’s why there’s a Part 3 to this body image series…