Calm.Steady.Strong: Cancer Recovery

dvdBy Susi Hately, B.Sc. Kinesiology,

How to Answer the Question “Now What? . .  Where Do I Go From Here?”

You or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, or are finished treatment. Whichever is the stage, an undeniable line in the sand has been drawn. What was before, is no longer what is, and everything going forward is unmistakably different. The veil of life, the veil of illusion,  has been pulled away.  Now what? Where do you go from here?

The answer to Now What? is different depending on the stage you are at. At the start of treatment there are options and advice to navigate, decisions to be made. The question Now What? guides you to creating the plan going forward.

During each treatment or after surgery if you are feeling fatigue, nauseous, or in some cases feeling so stiff that you can barely move, the Now What? question leads to very simply, “how can I feel better and mitigate the experience I am having as a result of the treatment”.

At the end of treatment, after the last chemotherapy or radiation treatment, or when you are walking out of the doctor’s office, when there was a vague thought of maybe there would be some sort of acknowledgement that you were complete, and there wasn’t, the Now What? question, leads you to the rest of your life and how to now pick up the pieces and carry on . . . calm, steady strong.

Then again, you may be the loved one, the friend, spouse, child, parent, who is supporting someone going through this recovery process. While your specific challenges are different, there is still a physical, mental and emotional toll. The Now What? question leads to how do you manage going forward. How best do you take care of yourself while also carrying for someone you love?

Whichever is your role, and wherever you are on the spectrum of recovery, you can regain, you can reset the foundation from which you can maintain, attain or retain as active and as balanced a lifestyle as possible. Because no matter where you are at on the spectrum of recovery with as many decisions that have to be made, you still need to move . . .Whether it is the small movements which may feel so challenging like being able to turn your head in bed, to rolling out of bed, to walking to the bathroom and to sitting on a toilet; or the more complex movements necessary for standard day-to-day errands which, at this time can feel exhausting – tasks like like grocery shopping, making meals, picking up/dropping off kids, and other day-to-day errands. Movement is a necessary component in each one and the more able you are to move, the easier it will be.

How Yoga Fits In

Yoga as a practice has evolved from something quite esoteric to a mainstream and alternative fitness program to a growing and very practical healing modality. Yoga Therapy, as I teach it, is a combination of yoga movements that have been adapted and modified according to principles of kinesiology, anatomy and physiology specific to a person who is going through a disease or other condition.  There is a recognition that the pain, the tightness, the tension, the disease, injury or illness that you are experiencing is getting in the way of living the life you want to live. Yoga and Yoga therapy can help you build the mobility, build the stability, the strength and stamina so you can return to what you know best. Yes, for some people there will be limitations. You may have had surgery, you may be experiencing latent effects of chemotherapy and radiation, your physical structure may have been altered, and you may have resulting strength or flexibility imbalances. You may also have neurological issues, lymphatic issues, and parts or whole organs may have been removed. What is important to know is that progress is still possible, no matter what the limitations.  The key is to improve your function within your current context, so the impact of the limitation is lessened leading you toward being able to do what you want to do with less pain, tightness and tension.

The Success of Yoga: How Movement, Breath and Stillness Enable Healing Come Together

In my over 20 years working with people moving through the healing process I have witnessed three interweaving layers of results, each one impacting and being impacted the by the other. The big picture results are those like better sleep, improved mood, less fatigue and a better outlook on life. The middle picture results (which lead to big picture results) include improved flexibility, reduced tension, improved strength and endurance. This is fed by the more subtle and foundational results which are improved awareness, improved breathing, and ability to move well and to sit in stillness.

Each layer of results impacts the other. The foundational/subtle layer will illicit gains in the bigger picture, and the bigger picture will feed and inform how you progress through the smaller process. All layers need to be kept in mind as you continue to take steps forward.

Maximizing Your Efforts

This is only the beginning.

My clients have told me that during the treatment phase, when the medical clinic is prescribing and outlining the appointment times and treatment regimes, practicing their yoga is the one (or one of a few) time(s) they make the choice – they choose their yoga appointment time, whether it is at my studio, or on their own for their home practice. This is a subtle and very important distinction because healing requires a certain clarity of knowing that you have control to make your own choices, to be able to chart a course for your future. By stepping onto your yoga mat, a powerful inner statement is being made that this is your choice.

My clients have also found that how they practice is as important as doing the actual practice. Yoga consists of a combination of breathing, movement and stillness practices. Each practice includes an allotment of each component, and the decision on any specific allotment depends on how you are feeling, what you are feeling, and what you need to do to care for yourself, and if you are ready, to move yourself forward.

I can’t stress enough this component of feeling. Surgery and treatment process can hammer away the inner knowing that is an inherent foundation to wellbeing. Returning or re-acquainting yourself to that inner knowing is a vital piece to healing. I know this can be challenging, particularly in the realm of mental and emotional states. Some clients have told me that the diagnosis of cancer made them feel completely abandoned by their body, upset for letting them down, they had done everything right in their life, and now this. They ask me rhetorically, “How could my body do this to me?” They tell me that the last thing they want to do is get in touch with the various sensations in their physical body, often saying something like “honestly, I’d rather ignore it and move on.”

On the other hand, others have shared how amazed they were with how their body was healing and in awe of that process. They are thankful for what their body is doing for them.

I have worked with people who have expressed both of these states of being. Both are completely valid, neither is better than the other, neither suggests or has shown better healing outcomes than the other. The key is to recognize where you are at. This is the place from which you will begin.

In addition to becoming aware of the mental and emotional feeling states to assess a starting point, there is also the physical sensations of stiffness, tightness, tension, nausea, fatigue. These can be pre-existing to your diagnosis, be a result of treatment, or stemming from a reduction in activity or related to mental and emotional experiences (stress is often accompanied by tightness somewhere in the body whether the superficial muscles or deeper, as in the stomach or intestines).

The important key is to first becoming aware that “something” is there, and then recognizing what it is and using that awareness and recognition to guide you in deciding how much and for how long to practice.

To help you navigate this process healing as it relates to breath, movement and stillness, consider the following 5 principles of healing that have helped people recover quickly and develop their capacity to live the life they want to live.

Principles For Making Progress

1. Recognize how you are feeling prior your yoga session. What is driving you, what is motivating you to practice?
As you move, move in a range of motion that doesn’t increase your pain, create tension or induce strain. A clear way to recognized this is if when you move you clench your jaw, harden your eyes, or grip/brace anywhere in your body that isn’t involved in the movement.

2. Move as purely and precisely as you can. This builds on point 2, and focuses on reducing the compensation in your body. If you reduce the amount you compensate with your movement, you will get improve your function, your mobility, flexibility, stability, strength and power much faster.

3. Don’t force. If you force or try to push through you will find that the amount you grip and brace will increase. While it is often believed that we must push to improve, I have found that with less force there are faster results.

4. Breathe Naturally.  There is often a thought that we must breathe deeply, or in a certain way for it to be effective. As we we move through the healing process, your body will become more supple allowing for a greater breathing capacity. You don’t have to force this process, and if you allow it to happen organically, by following the principles above, your breathing ability and capacity will improve very quickly.

Healing is possible, regaining movement, stability and strength is possible. Begin small and begin with awareness. You will find that as your capacity for movement grows, your pain will reduce, your sleep will improve and your feelings of confidence and steadiness will build.

If you would like more direction in your process of recovery and healing, please contact us – through this link –