I n the past 18 months, four women within my social circle have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Each one was much younger than 61, the average age breast cancer is diagnosed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, second only to lung cancer among cancer deaths.
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 11 percent of newly diagnosed breast cancers in the U.S. each year are to women younger than 45 years of age. That’s why the American Cancer Society recommends regular mammograms for all women beginning at age 40. “Mammography screening can often detect breast cancers at an early stage, when treatment may be more effective and there are more treatment options,” says Sarah Bynum, communication manager for the American Cancer Society - Memphis. Though breast cancer statistics aren’t tracked by city, Bynum says 4,770 women in Tennessee will likely be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Of those, 890 will likely not survive. Nationally, 231,840 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2015.
A Healing Place
Breast cancer survivors of all ages trickle in on a sunny Saturday afternoon to Better Bodies Yoga on Brookhaven Circle. Many have been coming here for years. They appreciate the class because it offers stress relief and physical comfort. Yoga For Cancer Patients and Support Persons was created by Better Bodies owner, Karen K. Moss, nearly a decade ago. Moss saw firsthand the benefits of yoga while helping her mother through cancer treatment.
“I was teaching and doing yoga with my mom all through her treatments up until the day before she passed away,” says Moss. “She always felt so much better after we finished each session, both mentally and physically.”
After losing both parents to cancer, Moss began offering the free class to provide a safe healing place for others struggling with cancer. She says research has shown that when cancer patients practice yoga, they feel more connected to life, have more energy, enjoy a positive outlook, and have a greater survival rate.
Now in its ninth year, the class is stronger than ever, both literally and figuratively. Moss says the group has bonded; they support and encourage one another. Physically, yoga has also helped them to become stronger and more empowered.
Yoga has long been known to decrease stress levels, lower blood pressure, and boost a yoga practitioner’s mood. But recent research is also showing that yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.
In cancer patients, inflammation is a cause of the chronic fatigue patients can experience even months after treatment has ended.
“I always feel better after this class,” says Mickey McCarley, a 14-year breast cancer survivor. “It’s not just the stress relief from class, but the camaraderie of being around other people that are going through what you are going through.”
An Ohio State University study published in the January 2014 Journal of Clinical Oncology studied 200 breast cancer survivors. The group was divided in two, with half participating in twice weekly yoga sessions and the other half practicing no yoga. The yoga group reported less fatigue and more energy than the non-yoga group after just three months. The study also examined markers that indicate inflammation. After the three months of yoga classes, each of the yoga student’s markers for inflammation were lowered by 10 to 15 percent.
Staying strong, being mindful
Jessica Frederick currently teaches the Yoga for Cancer Patients class at Better Bodies. She encourages her students to always move through a pain-free range of motion and use as many blankets as necessary to soften the floor under sore muscles and bones.
“There is a bone pain, or an ache, that the Neulasta shot that is given during chemotherapy causes, and much of that is alleviated with yoga,” says Jenny Merritt who recently completed breast cancer treatments, which included a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. Merritt was unable to attend yoga classes but continued with a gentle yoga practice at home when able. Frederick reminds her class to be mindful of their movements and thoughts. She uses a lot of positive affirmations and intention-setting in her class.
“I intentionally never use the word cancer,” she says. “They know they have it.”
A support network
Students in the Better Bodies cancer class report feeling more optimistic, having less pain, being able to breathe better, feeling calmer during treatment, and being able to rely on the support network they’ve developed in class. Merritt says her doctors were familiar with yoga and encouraged her to stay as active as she could.
“Yoga was very beneficial during my chemotherapy because my muscles were getting weaker and it felt as though they were drawing up,” says Merritt. “I can't imagine not being able to stretch and loosen them up daily.”
Both Frederick and Moss keep the mood upbeat and positive for each student.
“I use a lot of humor with this group,” she says. “If I didn’t — they and me — would all walk around crying all the time.”
Laughter and positivity have also been shown to lower stress levels, again leading to decreased inflammation in the body.
Moss says she includes the cancer support persons in her free yoga class because the disease affects everyone in the cancer patient’s life. She says attending the class with their loved one allows them to spend quality time together rather than just running to doctor appointments.
“It is a gift and a privilege to teach this group. Helping someone to feel just a little better or giving someone a little bit of hope during their darkest hours has been some of the most fulfilling yoga classes that I have taught,” says Moss.
Although breast cancer statistics may appear grim, there is good news. Bynum says the American Cancer Society currently records 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the U. S.
For students here, staying upbeat and sharing the comraderie yoga provides is another way to manage this very personal battle.
Yoga class For Cancer Patients & support persons
Better Bodies Yoga 692 & 696 W. Brookhaven Circle Saturdays, from 1:30-2:45 p.m. Free • 767-YOGA