Filling the gaps after cancer treatment: Patient empowerment through yoga therapy

By Lee Majewski

As I recognized from my own cancer experience, there is a huge gap in medical cancer care—a gap yoga therapy can fill nicely. (Read more about how yoga therapy complements medical care in my previous post.) Typically, after surgery cancer patients undergo chemotherapy and radiation, which may last from a few weeks to a few years. Often, these intensive treatments result in severe side-effects—both mental and physical.

The allopathic oncology system usually does not suggest next steps or provide aftercare once treatments are finished. Western medicine tends to take us to the point where all our chemical treatments are complete. Information on how to deal with side-effects and what would be useful to speed up recovery may be limited, and patients can find themselves on their own at a time when they are most vulnerable and in need of support.

Side-effects from chemotherapy and from the disease itself can vary greatly depending on the person and the type of chemicals used but can include pain, nausea, insomnia, fluctuating energy levels or fatigue, confusion, lack of focus, anxiety, depression, and more. Other potentially life-changing side-effects have not yet been researched: disconnection from the body and the feeling of being victimized. Because of the prolonged pain and suffering to which the body is subjected, we may disconnect from the neck down. When I had chemotherapy sessions, I couldn’t meditate because every time I sat and quieted my thoughts, I heard every cell of my body screaming: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO US?!” It was too painful an experience, so I disconnected my attention from my body.

Once we enter the medical system to have chemotherapy or radiation, we are told what to do, when, and how to do it. The doctors have all the power to “cure” us, and all we can do is to hope and show up for treatments. When I asked my oncologist what I could do to facilitate better therapy he simply answered, “Don’t you worry, we will do it for you.” We can end up giving our power away to the medical system.

This is where yoga therapy picks up and shines. It deals with every person individually. A skillful yoga therapist empowers clients with yogic self-care tools, enabling them to influence the way they feel.

Using asanas (body postures), breath, and awareness, yoga therapy can move the body out of long-term inactivity. It can establish a close connection between mind and body, so life becomes fuller and experienced on deeper levels. Fatigue decreases.

Other yogic tools like meditation, yoga nidra, and chanting help to develop mental stillness and emotional calm. Depression, anxiety, and anger clear, and one’s outlook on life changes. With time, the spring in the step and sparkle in the eye return.

Most importantly, though, a skillful yoga therapist will choose and modify yogic practices to each person’s physical and mental limitations, also taking into account the type and stage of cancer. This makes the therapy highly individualized and effective.

So why isn’t everyone doing yoga therapy? We live in a society of fast food and quick fixes. We want to feel better NOW! If there is pain, we want a “painkiller,” with its immediate effect of diminishing the symptom.

Yoga therapy requires a change in our thinking. We do not have specific yogic practices for specific physical symptoms. As I wrote in my previous post, yoga instead works with the entire, multilevel human being—the body, energy, emotions, and intellect. Yoga therapy is therefore concerned with lack of balance among these levels. The specific bodily problem is simply an outcome of such imbalances.

When applied early enough, we can expect that yogic practices will facilitate healing of the disease. If the pathology is advanced, yoga therapy may not bring balance but will facilitate improved quality of life. In both cases, the yogic practices have to be practiced long enough to work with the cause of the problem. This is certainly not a quick fix, but it produces lasting effects. Truly we have a choice: Go for a quick fix and deal only with symptom of the problem, or take the power into our own hands, work at it, and feel the positive effects over time.

Lee Majewski, C-IAYT, is recognized internationally as a yoga therapist specializing in cancer care and psychosomatic chronic diseases. She is a founding director and president of Yoga for Health Institute, a not-for-profit organization in Toronto, and the visiting senior yoga therapist at Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in India.