I had breast cancer in 2011, and I’m trying to stay in remission with the help of an integrative oncologist. Integrative oncologists believe that there are two parts to cancer care. The first part is the same as conventional oncology—surgery, chemo, radiation, and hormones. But they believe there is a second part that conventional oncology does not consider, and that is to make your “terrain” less susceptible to cancer, using diet, supplements, exercise, stress reduction, and avoidance of environmental carcinogens. Yoga and meditation are among the things I do in the categories of exercise and stress reduction.
Researchers advise 4-7 hours of moderate to intense exercise per week to reduce the risk of breast cancer. This is because exercise controls blood sugar and limits levels of insulin growth factor, a hormone that can affect breast cells. For the cardiovascular parts of my exercise program, I mostly walk my dogs, but for stretching and body conditioning I do yoga. The class I attend unites both exercise and stress reduction because our teacher sees yoga as a combination of postures, breathing, and mental focus. We leave the class feeling as though we have gotten much more than just exercise.
Our teacher specializes in yoga for people over 40, and we have people in class ranging from their 20s to their 80s. Some of the younger members are yoga teachers who are interested in learning to work with an older age group. The atmosphere is completely non-competitive, and each person does what he or she can. We start with basic postures, combining breathing and focus, and people who are more flexible can keep adding on until their postures become quite advanced. There is something about the atmosphere that makes us feel more energized when we leave class than we did when we arrived.
Having cancer is very stressful–cancer is probably the most feared disease of our times. We know that fear is detrimental to healing because it activates stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. Both animal and human studies have shown that stress is a “tumor promoter,” which means that if there is cancer in the body, stress will make it spread. There are many ways to reduce stress, and one of the most powerful is meditation.
I have been attending a meditation group once a week for about twenty years, and I also practice at home. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was grateful that meditation had given me some tools to manage my thoughts and emotions so that I could stay relatively present instead of being swept away by fear and anger. I also got the support of my meditation group. While I was undergoing treatment, after each group session I would sit in the center of the circle for a few minutes while everyone in the group pointed their open palms at me and chanted “om.” I could feel their energy and their love, and it helped.