An integrative online program supports cancer patients during the pandemic

By Denyse Le Fever

When COVID-19 first appeared, many organizations and healthcare providers quickly adapted in-person programs to an online setting. Life with Cancer, where I work as a yoga therapist, was one of them. 

If you were to search “cancer and yoga,” dozens of evidence-based results would surface citing yoga’s benefits for individuals on the cancer journey—from diagnosis to treatment to survivorship. Yoga can significantly improve quality of life for cancer patients, so continuing to provide access through the pandemic was crucial. 

Virtual classes promote inclusivity, ingenuity

Before transitioning to online classes, clients practiced Restorative yoga on-site. Image courtesy of Denyse Le Fever

Inova Health System in Northern Virginia has been offering integrative support to those whose lives have been impacted by cancer through its Life with Cancer programs. The organization provides a variety of mental and physical wellness programs that include yoga. Upon shifting classes online, they taught volunteers and contractors how to move to a HIPPA-compliant virtual platform. Partly because of this platform, which meets U.S. patient privacy guidelines, the organization has been able to maintain the quality and consistency of these programs through the pandemic.

The merger of multiple in-person classes onto one virtual weekly class created a more inclusive environment. Participants—and sometimes family members—joined classes from the comfort of their homes. Yoga teachers and therapists taught yoga nidra, restorative, and gentle yoga to a broader Life with Cancer population. The virtual community grew as participants chatted and got to know each other before classes. According to one participant, Angela Mojica*, 

“Virtual classes with my Life with Cancer family were a lifesaver. My computer transitioned from a tool for work to the heartbeat that connected me with community.”

The virtual platform created some teaching challenges. For example, at one location, prepandemic, in-person Restorative Yoga classes were fully equipped with sufficient yoga props for a class of 15 participants. Although the virtual platform allowed the class size to double and invite people from a broader geographic area, participants no longer had access to the props. The yoga therapists who taught these classes networked to discuss creative solutions. They modified poses using supports found at home: bed and sofa pillows, furniture, cans, blankets, Tupperware, and books.  

Working toward a more integrative approach 

When incoming Life with Cancer Director Sarah Bradly, MHA, and Wellness Program Director Kirstie Pomaranski, CPT, CES, CETI-CES, gathered the teaching team together in early 2021, they shared their vision for the future. Separately, the yoga therapy team gathered to brainstorm how their experiences could support this vision.  

Susan Kilday, MS, C-IAYT, shared her experience as a member of Inova’s integrative care team, which includes a nurse navigator, clinical therapists, art therapists, and others. Kilday describes her role as a yoga mind-body therapist who offers a holistic service to complement and support the medical staff: 

“Focusing on the whole person, versus their diagnosis, I strive to meet the unique and specific present-moment needs of the individual. As a yoga therapist employing appropriate evidence-based tools and practices, my goal is to support the patient’s sense of agency and well-being.” 

Kilday’s inpatient yoga therapy services include bedside support for those who are acutely ill, chairside support at the infusion center, and virtual group classes. This range demonstrates the full-spectrum Life with Cancer approach——supporting individuals from diagnosis to treatment to survivor. 

Bradly and Pomaranski both see the benefits of yoga therapy and possibilities for expanding services. “There’s a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel,” emphasizes Pomaranski. “We hope to expand yoga therapy services. In the meantime, we’ll continue to reach as many people as possible with quality services on our virtual platform.”

The team of yoga therapists are excited to begin the next evolution of yoga therapy at Life with Cancer as it expands to include adolescents. Yoga therapy is a relatively new area of focus in this hospital setting, and having a team of yoga peers permits us to compare experiences and learn from one another in a supportive environment.

Denyse Le Fever, MBA, C-IAYT, is a proud member of the Life with Cancer team. Other yoga therapy team members include Kim Albuerne, MS, C-IAYT; Jennifer Downing, MA, C-IAYT; Susan Kilday, MS, C-IAYT; and Paige Lichens, MS, C-IAYT.

*This participant granted permission for their name to be used in this piece.