BLOG Reflections on My Experience with Cancer and Yoga

“Sharing pain is the only way to stay alive. For the net of love helps to absorb and distribute the struggle”.
—Mark Nepo,
From God, Self, and Medicine

When I was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2006, that news and the experiences that followed were truly life changing. Now, with several years behind me, I have started to understand more clearly the lessons that were planted back then.

I remember the exact moment when my life began to change. I was newly married and waitressing in Charlotte NC. For all I knew, I was totally healthy, a distance runner since I was 16.  

I was working the lunch shift at the Rock Bottom Café and had just returned to the kitchen for an order when I touched my neck and felt a protruding lymph node the size of a golf ball. My heart sank.

For the next couple of weeks I massaged the lump and waited patiently for it to get smaller. It had to, I believed, because I was perfectly healthy. But it didn’t. Finally, without telling anyone—not my husband, not my mom—I went to the E.R. From there grace carried me, truly, because I was uninsured. I was funneled into a county system for working uninsured people and was able to get the care and the treatments I needed that saved my life.

The doctors performed a biopsy to see if the lump was cancer. A week later I went back for the results. I remember being slightly annoyed that I had to go back because I still believed I was fine, and I was just thinking about where to stop and get coffee. When I walked in the room, my eyes fixated on the box of Kleenex “staged” on the table. I internally talked myself down, thinking they have Kleenex in all the rooms. When the surgeon walked in he did not hesitate to tell me it was cancer and the immediate plans involved chemotherapy and radiation.  

It was then I needed the Kleenex. I had heard so many scary stories about cancer treatment and each one raced through my mind.  It was a very dark moment. I confided in in my mom and I asked the first thing that came to my mind “Will this make my teeth fall out?” I had watched an episode of Oprah about the effects of methamphetamine abuse and in my panicked confusion I had mistaken it with the effects of cancer treatment.

My oncologist was Dr. Packman. He told me his roommate in med school had been treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so he had an intimate understanding of the effects of this disease. He was very clear with me that if I followed his direction—despite some misgivings on my part—that I could be “cured” of this cancer. He was both serious and kind. Now I realize how lucky I was to have him assigned to my case—again, grace.

Well,  my teeth were intact. But the treatments definitely made my hair fall out. The year that followed was all about getting through my treatments and hoping for the best. What I am saying is that everything else got pushed into the closet, and the people closest to me ushered me through some of the emotionally devastating treatments and times. I was now in a reality where I had to get shots every single morning to keep up my blood count so I could receive the poison that would hopefully save me. After each treatment I felt like a zombie. I could not eat or drink. Almost as soon as I would start to come back and feel all right it was time for another treatment.  I couldn’t even tell if they were working. 

When I finally completed my treatment protocol I had a PET scan, which is used to detect potential problems on a cellular level. I remember trying to be so good, so worthy, to think good thoughts, to follow every direction to a T. When I got off the table after the procedure I scanned their faces for any clues of what they saw but they revealed nothing.

Trying on wigs with my family.

Trying on wigs with my family.

Days after the PET scan, when my parents were visiting, I snuck off to my doctor’s appointment early in the morning. I didn’t think it was results day, but maybe I was just playing some mental gymnastics. My oncologist did not hesitate to tell me that my scan was clear and to go and enjoy my life. I never saw him again, I did get P.E.T. scans for the next 5 years. When I got home and told my family, well that was special day. We had a wig party, playing with all the wigs I never wore.

I thought that once the doctor said I was better, I could just leave that interruption to my life behind and pick up where I left off. That was not at all the case. I was knocked down in every part of my life. When I went out for my first run, I returned home after 15 minutes with bloody knees and completely out of breath.  

This is when the real healing began. It felt like I was starting from scratch and I remember thinking “Will I ever be the same again or does everything start going downhill from here?” At age 30 I knew I had a second chance but at the time I was just trying to survive my own mental jungle.   

As I rebuilt my life, I had no other choice but to trust that the decisions I made were truthful and leading toward greater alignment. The first few years after were very scary for me… I was afraid the cancer never really went away. I was pressured financially too, and my only option for health insurance benefits was to work for a corporation. After a while, however, I became unhappy with my job. It felt toxic and it wasn’t worth staying just for health care coverage, since I believed it would eventually make me sick all over again.

Before cancer I had been using yoga more or less as exercise. This changed dramatically after I left the corporate world. Being a cancer survivor helped me to bring a deeper meaning to my yoga practice. It not only helps to ground and strengthen me mentally and physically. But practicing and teaching yoga also became my tool for canceling out the noise of judgments, conditioning, etc., and trusting the process, no matter how scary and fragile life can be. 

The more I practiced yoga, the more I began to see how energy manifests physically. Yoga is a science of the mind, and in each moment our mind can lead us to freedom and health or make us sick. My yoga practice holds me accountable for working through the unavoidable challenges that life presents.  

Yoga invites us to step into the unknown and work through blockages. My yoga practice is my greatest form of health insurance. As an instructor, I do my best to provide space for practitioners to do the same. I try to teach from a place of authenticity, with the understanding that ALL of us experience similar ups and downs in wide variety of forms. We are all connected.

After cancer or other serious illnesses, we have a perception of ourselves as to how we were before treatment.  When we show up to our yoga mats we are often faced with loss of strength, mobility, lung capacity and memory.  Our nerves and endocrine system may be compromised. We may look completely different from hair loss and weight fluctuations. It can be a mental/emotional jungle to navigate. Taming the fluctuations of the mind is more challenging than any physical yoga posture we will ever be asked to do, as we work through issues of worthiness, fear, anger, grief, and more.  

For me, getting to know my students and providing an experience where they can work through whatever they are dealing with is my approach to teaching—whether it’s sitting and mediating or working through a strong posture. It is essential for a yoga teacher to step away from personal agendas and offer a safe, honest and grounded experience to facilitate healing.

To make a yoga practice meaningful, we need to try to take the lessons of yoga OFF the mat as well and into our lives. When we do this we stop reacting to the endless amount of stimulus in a very turbulent world. We begin navigate our lives with mindfulness. We begin to see how everything is connected, that everything we thing we do and say matters. When we practice kindness and compassion to ourselves, we can reflect it to others.

Yoga techniques to still the mind—breathing, mediation, and visualization—help us to rationally handle each moment as it comes, particularly the stressful ones. Stress feeds any disease. It can be debilitating. But we can begin to feel empowered again by these techniques. This can be especially powerful for anyone who’s undergoing or has gone through cancer treatment and the anxiety that comes with it. 

When we practice yoga, we become more at home in our bodies and respond to external energies with more ease, compassion, bravery, trust and love. Birth to death and all that comes in between: The circle of life is not an option, but the manner in which we maneuver through it is up to each individual. When we are empowered to face our fears, we can evolve past them. THEN we can make conscious decisions how our Dharma (life’s work) can be lived out for whatever amount of time needed. Yoga is a process from the inside out, and as a cancer survivor this knowledge helps me to direct my compass and be grateful for the time that I do have.

As I said, I used to wonder if after cancer my life would ever be the same again. Now I can say thank goodness it is not! My experience with cancer helped me take responsibility for my peace of mind, and yoga has been my way to that place. My yoga practice was and continues to be what helps me let go and keep moving forward.  Now I can’t even imagine my post-cancer years without my yoga practice. It has meant that much too me.

Throughout this journey I am learning that every moment is significant and there is always a choice of how I receive each moment. I am learning, I am practicing.

—Wendy Campbell

P.S. That run that knocked me down? It inspired me so much, I ran my first marathon six months later and four total that year!