At the beginning of 2016, I was a vegetarian enjoying tennis and yoga several times per week. Sync was my yoga home and social life. As an early retiree of 57, I had lots of hobbies, was financially set, and had a healthy marriage. Leonidas, my husband, still worked. We couldn’t imagine anything disrupting our bliss.
In February of that year, I went for a colonoscopy after noticing occasional blood in the stool since December 2015. I wasn’t tired in the least. The news came back, “You have Stage IV colon cancer.” I sat there in disbelief. They must have mixed my CT scan up with someone else’s. It simply wasn’t possible. It would take as few weeks for it to sink in enough for me to cry.
I started chemo within two weeks, because my liver tumors were so large and pervasive that I was inoperable. I went to chemo, thinking it was a long shot, only because my husband and sister deserved some effort on my part. But, didn’t see how I could keep it up after the first treatment, and secretly wished I were off the hook. In my skeptical mind, Stage IV was a death sentence.
After the first infusion, I went to the free psychologist at UT Southwestern, who I am pretty sure was there specifically to buck up the numerous scaredy-cats. I wanted him to help me feel better about throwing in the towel, or to sticking with treatment.
“I’m so glad you came to see me when you did. I understand your reluctance, but one thing you don’t want to leave this world with is regret.” I asked him how he meant this, to which he answered, “Many people decide, ’I’m not going to undergo chemo!! That’s poison!’ After a few months, the symptoms of the cancer start to really show up. At which point they go back to their oncologist saying, ‘Doctor, I made a mistake. I changed my mind. I’m ready to undergo chemo,’ and the doctor replies, ‘I am so sorry; however, it is too late. It won’t do any good.’”
This chat got my attention. I needed to figure out (1) how to manage the side effects of chemo by reading pamphlets and books and following directions; and (2) what tools I could use to mitigate the chemo with things that were already in my tool chest: specifically yoga.
Ahimsa (Do No Harm)
I know a lot of people who are ill cannot do yoga. However, since I had been practicing since 1990, my body was, up to this point, trained to do yoga daily. If I went a week without it, the aches and pains of living and working automatically showed up. I whined to the therapist, “I don’t even know how I got this! I’m a yogi! I don’t even eat meat! I’ve spent years living in such a way as to avoid this sort of thing!”
He replied, “Your lifestyle up to this point didn’t prevent you from coming down with cancer. However, your lifestyle may very well save your life. There are many studies done on cancer patients and exercise, and those who exercise do much better.”
“You mean, they get to live longer?” I asked.
“No. They get to live.”
Another attention-grabber. My mother had died rapidly from cancer, and I remembered her going from the chair, to the couch, to the bed, and to the grave in less than six months. I did not want to succumb to the temptation of “giving in to the couch.”
He continued, “You’re going to feel like crap anyway, whether you are walking, sitting, or lying down. You may as well walk.”
Yoga While Undergoing Treatment
I kept up my yoga schedule at Sync. I would go when I felt nauseous, fatigued, crampy, dehydrated, and depressed. I used yoga to flush out the chemo by doing a lot of twists, and always came out of class feeling much closer to normal.
I had to get over my fear of other people’s sniffles. I might move away from them, but the bottom line was that my coming to class was more important than not catching germs, even though my immune system was shot. I was very open with my teachers and classmates about the cancer, and on top of the detoxing from the postures, I received endless love and support from my Sync family.
I worked out while wearing a chemo pump (truly going above and beyond) and we all got used to it early on. I simply didn’t allow myself to come up with excuses for staying away. I knew other people might be allowed a permission slip to skip class after a giant nose bleed in the car on the way to Sync, but I had to hold myself to a higher standard. Being easy on myself wasn’t going to get me through this. Being tough might.
Even after undergoing abdominal surgery in October and December, I continued gentle postures in the hospital bed (listening to my body to make sure I didn’t overstretch.) Once out of the hospital and released to drive, I returned to practicing at Sync by doing gentle warmups and meditating. Basically, I listen to the teacher conducting class and picture the poses in my head until I fall asleep.
Where I am Now
Throughout the year, my response to chemo was dramatic. I thanked my oncologist, who replied, “It’s not me, Melody, it’s you. If it were up to me, all my patients would be doing as well as you. And they’re not.”
I can only say the secret ingredient was yoga.
The tumors shrank and died, and in December they took out two-thirds of my colon and removed seven tumors from the liver. They removed 40 lymph nodes, of which three were still “live” (cancerous). I will have to continue chemo for probably six months.
Instead of a two- to three-year prognosis, I’m looking at decades. I can’t wait to be able to get into warrior one or a twist, but my new mantra is, “Don’t get in any kind of hurry.” This has always been a marathon, and, as long as I can walk around the block or come to class, I am moving forward.
About the Author:
Melody Stanford is a member of Sync Yoga & Wellbeing. She is an inspiration to all of us, and we celebrate her and thank her for sharing her story!