By Marcia Mercier, Yoga for Breast Cancer Teacher
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month when there will be much in the media around breast awareness and breast cancer. Did you know that a woman born after 1960 and living in the UK has a 1 in 7 lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and that 18% of those diagnosed are women under 50?
I was one of these women back in 1998.
In this blog, I’ll share some background on my diagnosis and treatment; how I felt in the aftermath of it all and how I turned to yoga to help me recover.
Aged 32, I was a busy mother of two young children. The small lump in the crease of my right breast hadn’t been worrying me at all. I thought I was too young to have breast cancer. Thankfully, my husband encouraged me to get the lump checked and I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
I felt so many emotions: shocked that it could happen to me at 32, worried that I might not see my children grow up, and just plain angry at this huge interruption to all our lives. I had to get my head around having a full mastectomy, with some consolation that I could have an immediate reconstruction, so I’d have something that resembled a breast afterwards. I was then prescribed Tamoxifen (a hormonal drug) to reduce the risk of recurrence.
Having a cancer diagnosis is a trauma and it takes its toll on the body. From the initial shock of receiving the diagnosis, to undergoing the surgeries and treatments involved, you are very much in the hands of the medical profession, being passed from one specialist to another; the calendar filled with one hospital appointment after another. Somehow, though, you find this resilience to keep going and to get through whatever needs to be done to save your life.
For me, and for many women experiencing breast cancer, it is not until you are the other side of treatment and trying to move on with life beyond cancer, that the magnitude of what you’ve been through really hits home. The feelings of overwhelm, irritability, stress, being on the verge of tears most of the time, really took me by surprise. Those anticipated feelings of relief and celebration at the end of treatment just weren’t there.
I feared the cancer coming back and was conscious of every little ache, pain and bump in my body. I braced myself before every scan and going back to the breast cancer clinic brought back memories of being a patient there.
Trying to slot back into family life and look after my young boys was a challenge initially. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. But this was my body processing the trauma. I now realise that I was stuck in survival mode – in the fight/flight part of my nervous system and I needed to find ways to bring it all back into balance.
I decided to give yoga a try. I went along to a regular yoga class at my gym and loved it. It was an Iyengar class which is a style of yoga that is very alignment focused where poses are held for several breaths, so you have time to really feel the pose. For me, it was a great introduction to yoga and it felt like a safe space where I was doing something to look after myself. Yoga rehabilitated me; it strengthened and stretched my body and helped calm my mind. Most importantly, I felt empowered that I was taking charge of my own recovery and well-being.
Yoga is a movement-based mind-body practice, synchronising body, breath and mind. The meditative and physical tools of yoga can help you relax, by regulating the fight/flight part of the nervous system and bring you into the rest/digest state. A regular yoga practice also reduces stress hormones, like cortisol, helping you manage stress and have a better quality of life.
As well as the psychological effects on the body, there can be physical side effects associated with ongoing hormonal therapy, which can continue long after active treatment has finished. Symptoms like fatigue, joint pain and stiffness are common amongst the students I teach.
My Yoga for Breast Cancer classes focus on mobilising the whole body, encouraging the flow of synovial fluid to lubricate the joints, specifically in the warm-up part of the practice. The standing poses and half sun salutations build muscle and bone strength and energise the whole body, stimulating the cardiovascular and lymphatic systems. Towards the end of the practice, the restorative poses will soothe and calm the body ready for the final relaxation in Savasana.
A regular yoga practice helps you become more aware of your body on many levels, from the physical level to more subtle levels, like the breath and state of mind. Through pranayama (yogic breathing) you learn how to use the breath as a tool to maintain a state of equilibrium. Yoga helps you take back control, to come back into your body and treat it with compassion as you move forwards with life after breast cancer.
My Yoga for Breast Cancer classes are online every Wednesday 9.30-10.30am and are in-person and online at breast cancer charity, Future Dreams House, every Tuesday lunchtime 1-2pm.
For more information on how to check your breasts, or for any breast health concerns contact: