On May 20, Living Beyond Breast Cancer will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of its signature education and fundraising event, Yoga on the Steps. In addition, this September LBBC will release “Yoga and Breast Cancer,” a new title in our expanding library of “Understanding Breast Cancer” guides. Recently, the blog introduced Amy Annis who wrote an intimate piece about her connection to yoga while in recovery. Due to some thoughtful questioning, Amy would like to share more accurately her knowledge of the yoga practice and the issue of Lymphedema in women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Many survivors will tell you that in an odd way cancer is a gift. Of course it certainly doesn’t feel like that in the beginning. But many women, during and after diagnosis, pull up something deep from within themselves and become much stronger than they ever thought they could be. Subsequently, survivors are often perceived as courageous, partially because they are, and partially because they had to be. When you are given that kind of news it is an eyeball to eyeball with death moment, and most of us suit up with all of the strength we can muster and walk head first into treatment.
When I received my diagnosis, I admittedly crumpled at first but wasn’t given much time to wallow in pity and disbelief. Within weeks I was heading into chemo. That was by far the first big risk I took in this cancer journey. I say this because for a practicing yogini who typically led a very healthy life the idea of pumping poison into my veins felt really wrong. It was a health juxtaposition that messed with my mind and my spirit.
Throughout the next few months I had moments of panic where despite all of the great medical advice I was given I wanted to stop the whole process and retreat. During my treatment, Suzanne Sommers released a book suggesting that chemo was a pharmaceutical conspiracy and it just about put me over the edge. Every day I questioned myself and my very amazing medical team. And each time I had to eventually put myself back in the right frame of mind that I did not have total control, this was a process of eliminating cancer, and I needed to jump in full force.
After treatment, and as I mentioned in my prior blog, I used yoga as a means of recovery. My mat was my safe zone and I very slowly began to practice again. I discussed this process with my surgeon and oncologist and they both suggested that I needed to trust my instincts with the poses I chose. This was not a foreign concept at all. Years of yoga had taught me patience and I knew that you never push through pain. I was very familiar with the idea of listening to my body’s signals.
Following my mastectomy and node removal and familiar with the recommendations that you don’t incorporate certain poses initially, I inched my way from gentle restorative yoga towards a more vigorous practice. I say inched because it was a challenge for me; I wanted that strength back so bad. Tears of frustration were not uncommon. But after a period of several months of practicing modified poses, I was back on my mat holding my downward facing dog.
At this point in life I am literally doing hundreds of downward facing dogs. I am familiar with the risk of lymphedema in my right arm from this pose and have made the conscious choice to keep practicing it. I also know that I can get lymphedema from flying, cutting my arm while gardening, or even an insect bite. I will still fly to spend time with friends I love, hike in the great Northwood’s amongst mosquitoes, and practice downward facing dog. On the flip side, I will use the potential risk of lymphedema to get out of any gardening duties assigned (wink). But the decision to do certain yoga poses is a calculated risk I am willing to take. And so far the rewards have outweighed the risks big time.
Today I saw my surgeon for a check-up. He went over mammogram results, checked my arm and wrists for swelling, and spent a good deal of time up in my armpits. When he asked me to rise my arms he made mention of my incredible range of motion. And he asked me how the yoga biz was going. Before he left he reminded me of the aggressive nature of my form of cancer. It was the only somber moment in the room. Despite all of the rewards of living this very full life I will always face the possibility of cancer’s return.
Armed with this knowledge, I dig my heels into the ground a little further determined to practice yoga despite its potential risks for a patient with a history of breast cancer. As a teacher, I do my best to inform all my clients of any potential risks (understanding every physical activity has an element of it) only after I sing yoga’s praises. For me, and many of the clients that I work with, yoga has so far brought forth only benefits, not only of a healthy body but of a peaceful mind. And if someday I do get lymphedema, I won’t blame myself… or the yoga. I will find other ways to modify and practice, be at peace with the changes in my body, and continue to feel grateful for my amazing life.
After her bout with “crazy” cancer in 2009, Amy decided to take her dreams to the next level and developed her yoga retreat concept on beautiful Madeline Island, WI. She also found her writing voice and recently launched her own blog. As a yoga mamma, wife, outdoor enthusiast, and dog lover she delights in life a little off balance. Lately, she is very grateful for hair. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.