My mother died of cancer when I was 26. I’d lived in fear of getting it myself, but had countered that by trying to live and love well…and trying very hard not to worry. Yet, in October 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I turned to yoga.
I was 16 when a friend suggested yoga classes. I really enjoyed the challenge and the gentleness of the practise. It felt like my life became tranquil and positive rather than anxious and unpredictable. It definitely released the tension my body was carrying as a result of the mental burden of ill-health in the family.
Staying The Course
However, this did not lead to a lifetime’s practise. I would sign up for a year or two and feel great; my whole attitude to life would lift and I would take better care of myself. Then I would stop.
Any interruption in my routine, and the yoga classes went. Significantly, when I was in my forties, I discovered drama. It’s all-consuming and so my weekly yoga class had to go. I told myself I would practise on my own…I didn’t. My yoga teacher said the time just wasn’t right and when it was, I’d be back.
In addition, this was a period of a messy divorce and teenage children acting out. I was retraining as a secondary school teacher and slowly edging my way back to being an independent individual. It was at this time I could have done with yoga, but I felt too stressed to even contemplate it.
While I was escaping into dramatic arts, my spinning-top life was gradually losing momentum and settling down. Things were on the “up.” It was then I got a mammogram appointment. I’d missed my first one,but this second time, I went.
Maybe, unconsciously, I knew that a few years ago, if I’d been recalled for further investigation, it would have pushed me over the edge. Two good friends had died of cancer the previous year. I saw “me” in their children: memories flooded back and absolutely threw me. All the things I’d locked away securely for years, broke loose and scattered everywhere I looked.
A sense of vulnerability descended. I realised I had not dealt with my own trauma—I’d merely put it under house arrest while I tried to live a “normal” life.
My S.O.S. Moment
On learning my own diagnosis, my distress was not for me, but for my children. I didn’t want them to have to go through this experience, and it was breaking my heart to know there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My head was sending SOS signals, alarm bells were ringing—things needed to be done. Something. But what?
So I signed up for a Stress Counselling course where we looked at relaxation techniques (yoga nidra), and the realisation dawned: Yoga, which I hadn’t done in over ten years, would help.
I wanted to feel better. I didn’t want my newly unearthed sense of vulnerability picked over. I wanted to live the remainder of my life with energy and playfulness, not serious, sensible, soberness.
For many, yoga looks serious on the surface. But I see it as a chance to be playful, to see where you can go with your mind and body, and a quiet time to explore myself obliquely, from an angle that doesn’t require me to talk it out.
Somehow, yoga allows me to self-soothe and self-heal and analyse myself peacefully and uninterrupted.
Yoga Is Tailor Made
I have never felt the need to be “good” at yoga. Indeed, currently, I can’t do a lot of it because my arm, where the nodes were extracted, is still weak. The philosophy of yoga is to do your personal best and, for me, seeing what my body can achieve is my own private, one-person, game of Twister.
It just makes me happy and it calms me and makes me feel better. I feel like I am achieving something. I’m no longer a passenger in the cancer train heading to a destination which I’m not entirely sure I want to reach. I feel more like an active participant, working to make my days more joyous.
You can go just as far as is right for you: adapt poses, avoid poses, replace poses—make it your own. I feel better after stretching muscles and sinews that don’t get any attention from me in my everyday life. They repay me by giving me a buzz or imparting a sense of freedom and lightness. Yoga takes me on a virtuous spiral upwards.
Pursuing Teacher Training
In my quest to prioritise myself, I am pursuing yoga teacher training. The year-long, 200-hour course is both challenging and enjoyable. I would like to help other cancer patients to discover yoga as a way to feel physically better, to feel safe with their bodies, and to take a break from the overwhelming process of cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The need to focus on the here and now in order to maintain balance means you have to throw out all other thoughts and distractions. For someone suffering from cancer, that is a welcome respite because inevitably, your mind is in a whirl and you find it hard to clear the fog of worry.
When your life is called into question, you want what remains to be beautiful. You want it to be calm, you want it to be vital, you want to hold onto a sense of who you are. Yoga is perfect for this.
Image credit: Carola Böttcher
by Kathleen Mansfield – Kathleen is an English teacher, training to teach yoga. She's producing a book called Tumour Rumour, a short stories collection about coping with cancer. Proceeds will go to Maggie's Centre in Edinburgh. For details, contact [email protected]