How yoga helped a 50 years old woman diagnosed with breast cancer

Mary Kahn turned 50 this year, but 2017 didn’t quite go to plan after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Here, she explains how yoga helped her through her greatest challenge…and continues to support her.

January…always a good time to plan… and I had a truly exciting year planned! Iyengar Yoga, as always, played a key part in my plans: I had my weekly yoga classes, days and weekends booked in with Hannah Lovegrove, a workshop
on women’s health with Bobby Clennell (at Hannah’s studio), a week in July in Portugal with Rachel Lovegrove (yes, Hannah’s sister!) along with my husband (Bruce) plus a week in Italy (with Rachel) in September.

It was to be a busy year and not just on the yoga mat: both Bruce and I were turning 50 and our eldest daughter was getting married in April.

My birthday at the end of January was celebrated with a challenging but totally absorbing weekend taught by Rachel Lovegrove (at Orange Tree Yoga). This was followed by an indulgent afternoon tea with my closest friends. I felt totally blessed being able to practice yoga and share these friendships — I didn’t know then how much both of these were going to be key in the months ahead.

Unexpected twist

After dancing the night away at a ceilidh to celebrate my daughter’s wedding, I had thought a little normality may now appear in my life. I was, instead, referred to the breast clinic. I have had cysts and the no nonsense description of ‘lumpy breasts’ before…but this time it was different. “There are changes since your last mammogram,” I was told by doctors. A few appointments, scans, biopsies later, I was informed: “You have Grade 2 breast cancer”.

During the to-ing and fro-ing of appointments and waiting I experienced every emotion in the book. My promise to myself was that food would be my medicine and I would get on my yoga mat every day. Looking back, it was a time when control was taken away in many aspects of my life.

However, what I ate and my yoga practice were two things clearly within my control. I was now a statistic, and like one out of every eight women was facing some life changing times ahead.

Support physically translated to support mentally, which left me emotionally stronger.

Yoga therapy

Not being known for my patience, I needed to dig deep and take many moments to just breathe. I went back to the teaching from Bobby Clennell and found the ‘Yoga for Breast Care’ book useful and inspiring.
This, coupled with one-to-one lessons with Hannah Lovegrove, gave me the confdence to know where to be with my practice. The preoperative sequences were all about opening the chest, the armpits and shoulders and I look back now with fondness to times I could practice with such freedom. I also look back with tremendous thanks for this advice as it paved the way for a smoother, less traumatic recovery.

Following a consultation with kinesiologist Rose-Marie Finley I received advice as to what my body needed to balance and continue
to be nurtured through this time. I filled the freezer with soups and easy nutritional meals and kept getting on my mat daily. Hannah observed the way my practice would change as I became more in tune with my body, and looking back now I can see this is when it started. Day Two post operatively I was on my mat and Viparita karini never felt so good.
I was supported with many, many blankets and as my legs felt heavier and heavier on the chair I could almost feel each layer of my body relax and rejoicing that time was being given to recuperate.

Making adjustments

I was used to having to adapt my practice prior to cancer due to cervical spondylosis, lumbar degeneration and an arthritic knee, but this was so new. And finding the new ‘normal’ changed every day (and it still is!).

I kept following the advice from the book and received care and guidance from Hannah, so much so that at seven weeks post op and with the consent of the medical team, my husband and I flew off to Quinta Mimosa, Portugal, for a week of yoga with Rachel. It was hard at times, always having to change and modify my practice from the general class; I have never used so many props! Setubhandha Sarvangasana saw me relaxed, recuperating with the help of seven bolsters, four blankets, two sandbags and a strap! Never before had I needed to listen to my body more than now; each asana needed thought and consideration, how not to strain, how to work around the post-operative swelling and scar tissue and what and where to use the props. Support physically translated to support mentally, which left me emotionally stronger.

A new normal

We returned from Portugal and I started three weeks of radiotherapy. My range of movement was ‘excellent’, and I beat the “Asanas penetrate deep into each layer of the body and ultimately into the consciousness itself ” BKS Iyengar odds having fair skin with the anticipated side effects on my skin. I followed before, during and afterwards the ‘cooling’ sequences from the breast care book and had continued adjustments and observations during my one-to-one’s. My yoga teacher gave me the confidence to trust my body and to keep listening to it.

So, I am now 12 weeks post op and I am still using more props than before but I have returned to my weekly classes (gently!) as being in the class is so important to me. There have been times of frustration and impatience. I have found it hard to keep my mind on an even keel, but balancing the support from family, friends, my yoga, my garden, walking by the sea and sometimes just being still has taught me acceptance and an inner peace. This, I believe, has come from listening on a different level to what my body needs at the very core. It is exciting to think about how my practice will develop in time.

Asanas penetrate deep into each layer of the body and ultimately into the consciousness itself.  – BKS Iyengar

Source: Om Yoga & Lifestyle.