(Photo courtesy of Bryan Minear)
There is a big gap in cancer medical care that I have recognized from my own experience. Typically, after surgery, cancer patients undergo chemotherapy and radiation, which may last from four weeks to a few years. Often, such intensive treatments result in severe mental and physical side effects.
The allopathic medical system tends to take us to the point where all our chemical treatments are done and finished. When patients undergo an open-heart-operation they have access to long rehabilitation programs helping them to heal quickly. The oncology health system, once the treatments are finished, does not suggest next steps nor does it provide any aftercare.
There is no information offered on how to deal with side effects and what would be useful to speed up recovery. Consequently, patients are often left to their own devices at the time when they are most vulnerable and need the support.
The side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly, depending on the person and the type of chemicals used. What is common though is that changes happen slowly, are cumulative and typically not noticeable to a patient. We tend to deal with physical side effects, such as the day-to-day fluctuating energy levels or increased fatigue, or forgetfulness. We do not usually notice the mental side effects such as confusion, lack of focus or depression.
And the body of research shows the following side effects from traditional treatments:
- Fatigue 96%;
- Pain 90%;
- Insomnia 69%;
- Nausea 68%;
- Anemia and more…
- Anxiety 79%
- Depression 77%
There are also other side effects, which have not been researched yet, such as disconnection from the body and the feeling of being victimized. Because of the prolonged pain and suffering to which body is subjected, we tend to 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 the body, neck down.
Once we enter the medical system to have chemotherapy or radiation we are told what to do, when to do it 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 can I do to facilitate better therapy?” he simply answered, “Don’t you worry, we will do it for you.” Somehow, we gave all our power away to the medical system.
This is where yoga therapy picks up and shines. It deals with each person individually. With a skilled yoga therapist, the patient is empowered with self-care yogic tools. Now s/he is able to influence the way s/he feels.
Using asanas (body postures), breath and awareness, yoga therapy moves the body out of long-term inactivity. It establishes a close connection between mind and body. Life then becomes fuller and is experienced on deeper levels. The fatigue decreases.
Other yogic tools like meditation, yoga nidra and chanting help to develop mental stillness and emotional calm. The depression, anxiety and anger lift and the outlook on life changes. With time, the “spring in the step” and the “spark in the eye” return.
Most importantly, a skillful yoga therapist will choose and modify yogic practices to suit an individual’s physical and mental limitations, also taking into account the type and stage of cancer. This makes the therapy highly individualized and most effective for every patient.
So why is yoga therapy taking off so slowly? We live in a society that is conditioned to a rapid lifestyle, fast food, and quick fixes. We want to feel better NOW! If there is a pain, we want a painkiller with its immediate effect of diminishing the symptom.
Yoga therapy requires change of paradigm in our thinking. We do not have specific yogic practices for specific symptoms manifesting in the body. As I wrote in my previous blog, yoga works with entire human being, at multiple levels: the body, vital energy, emotions, and intellect. It concerns itself, therefore, with the lack of balance between these levels. The specific body problem is simply an outcome of such imbalance. When applied early, enough yogic practices facilitate healing of the disease. If the pathology is advanced, yoga therapy may not bring balance but will facilitate an improved quality of life. In both cases, the yogic practices will have to be applied and practiced long enough to work with the cause of the problem. It is certainly not a quick fix, but it produces lasting effects. So, truly we have a choice: to go for a quick fix and deal only with the symptoms of the problem or take the power into our own hands, work at it and feel the positive effects over time.