Yoga and Breast Cancer Recovery Go Hand in Hand: Meet Jessica
Real-life story of a yoga and Pilates instructor who kept active during her Stage IV breast cancer recovery
Perhaps you have considered yoga as you recover from breast cancer — if so, you’re not alone. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of patients adopt the gentle exercise and meditation modality known as yoga for breast cancer recovery.
Jessica is a breast cancer survivor who practices yoga and Pilates on a daily basis and is also an instructor. We interviewed Jessica recently.
- How old were you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
Now that’s a date I won’t soon forget…May 17, 2002. I was 33 years old.
- What kind of breast cancer treatment did you receive?
Before I ever connected Pilates or yoga and breast cancer recovery in my mind, I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor 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 disease had already spread to my liver. My disease was in Stage IV at primary diagnosis.
I didn’t have radiation, but I did have 49 weeks of chemotherapy. In that time I was on 3 different combinations of drugs; the 2nd regimen was for a clinical trial that involved the continuous infusion of the drug-a 500cc bag of drug hooked up to my port w/ a portable pump. I carried it around for around 6mos in a fanny pack and called it “Ivy”.
- Was there a time when you could not continue teaching yoga during breast cancer recovery because of your treatments or other issues? If so, how did that make you feel?
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 did drop a bit low so I wasn’t able to do vigorous aerobic exercise. But I was still able to teach my Mat Pilates classes with a little modifying of my own activity — yoga is perfect during breast cancer recovery, actually, because it can be very gentle. I always looked forward to teaching because the people in my classes have always been (and still are) so supportive and encouraging of me throughout this experience. Teaching helped me maintain a sense of “normalcy” during such a chaotic time.
- Many women wouldn’t pair yoga and breast cancer recovery, opting instead for the comfort of their sofa and a warm blanket! How did you motivate yourself to keep it up?
Just being physically able to teach during treatment reinforced my confidence that I was still strong and healthy, cancer or not. Also, the support and encouragement I received from friends, co-workers, 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 aspect.
- How did yoga and Pilates help your breast cancer recovery?
I truly believe 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 really 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 during breast cancer recovery helped reinforce that I was strong and healthy — that carried over into mental confidence and peace.
- What do you think are the benefits of continuing your exercise routine during and after recovery?
While yoga and breast cancer recovery go hand in hand in many respects, you do have to be mindful not to over-tax your body 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 wellness as part of my prescription for continued health — and 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 this (chemo) again, I can handle it, but I’d really prefer not to.
- What words of encouragement have other women shared with you about yoga and breast cancer recovery?
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 IV actively infusing drugs, has motivated them to push harder, challenge themselves a bit more and never give up.
- And what advice would you share with others about Pilates, yoga and breast cancer recovery?
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. Find confidence in your ability to recuperate, heal and return to health.