7 Yoga Truths for Cancer & Life

Summertime will always put me in a reflective state. It seems to be my season of challenge, transition and transformation after being diagnosed with a Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor in 2014.

This time last year, I was deep into my 30-day, 200 hour yoga teacher training “intensive”, which is the most accurate description of the experience. I have never pushed myself more physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I cried therapeutic tears everyday and was surprised how much unresolved trauma I had stored in my body because of cancer. It was the best gift I have given myself and I graduated the program with so much more than a deeper understanding of the physical practice.

One of the many concepts that resonated with me during the 30 days was the Seven Axioms of Teacher Training. Over the last year, as I’ve continued to ride the rollercoaster of illness, these universal truths have been comforting reminders.

  1. You’re exactly where you’re suppose to be. This is a hard one to accept when an illness is involved. When I was sick, if someone said this to me, I probably would’ve punched them in the face, but now, I get it. I would give back cancer in a nano-second, but that means I would also have to give back the meaningful friendships I’ve created, the completion of the El Camino de Santiago, yoga teacher training, my career as a writer, my role at the FDA, my thirst for adventure, etcetera. All these wonderful things are a result of cancer. So, am I exactly where I’m suppose to be? Unfortunately and fortunately, yes.
  2. Fear and pain are life’s greatest teachers. Do I need to say anything more? I have learned so much from illness because it has brought on fear and pain I never realize existed and through that same fear and pain, I have learned how to live and not just exist. Cancer has taught me that I am so very strong, resilient and courageous, a word that makes me roll my eyes. I have been able to do things I never thought I’d be able to do because of cancer. For instance, before cancer I coward at the idea of needles. Now, I could give myself an injection while climbing a mountain at the same time. Cancer has also taught me deep compassion for my fellow humans. Others are often shocked when I tell them how the disease has impacted my life because I look like a normal, healthy, 37-year-old.  This is proof we never know what others have going on based on outward appearances and for that, I am kinder to people.
  3. Laughter and play are the fountains of youth. I find nothing fun about cancer. I often say it is the opposite of fun. But, I think within the non-fun, it is important to keep laughing and retain a childlike sense of play. In moments where it’s too hard to keep things light, call for backup. My husband is a major source of keeping me laughing and has succeed to make me smile in dark moments. When he’s not around, I watch YouTube and am surprised how much time I can spend watching puppy videos.
  4. Exercise and rest are the keys to vibrant health. We all know this, yet, so many of us ignore it. Before cancer, I exercised like crazy, at the expense of sleep. I believe, sleep deprivation was a contributing factor to my diagnosis. Now, I make sure I get at least eight hours and move my body every day. I wouldn’t describe myself as having vibrant health, but I would say I am more fit that the average person, which has been one of my secrets to managing a chronic illness.
  5. Touch and intimacy are basic human needs. We’ve all seen the study about babies who do not thrive when they are not touched and cuddled, yet, as we grow older, we assume that need dwindles. If you’re unwell, you should double-up the hugs and love.
  6. Everything is impermanent. For me, this is the most powerful axiom. It’s context is that everything is temporary. We all walk around with an illusion of control, which is not the case. When you look deeply, you will see that there are no guarantees. Health is temporary. Sickness is temporary. Happiness is temporary. Sadness is temporary. One of the reasons loss of anything is so hard to accept is because we do not expect change. We want our lives to continue on without any uncomfortable interruption. And when the interruption occurs, we are surprised and hurt. Accepting that everything is impermanent has given me great comfort. It has made the natural ups and downs easier to accept. And most important, it has taught me to live each day as if tomorrow is not guaranteed, because it is not.
  7. Everything is connected. I vividly remember the days and weeks after surgeries and chemotherapy concluded. I felt this euphoric connection to everyone and everything down to the core of my bones. Perhaps it was a high level of relief, trauma or PTSD, but I was so happy to be alive and enthralled with everything. I would go for a walk in my neighborhood and notice the tiniest, most beautiful things I never realized were there. I’d often come home with tears streaming down my face and my husband looking at me as if I’d lost my marbles. Everything seemed magical. While some of the feeling has faded, the memories remain evidence that we are all connected to everyone and everything whether we notice it or not.

Whether you are impacted by cancer, another illness or life challenge, I hope these axioms give you the same pause, solace and perspective they have for me.

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Pausing, Slowing Down & Reducing the Noise

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As featured on curetoday.com

In his book “Information Anxiety” (1989), Richard Wurman claims that the weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person in 17th-century England was likely to come across in a lifetime. I am curious how that statement would change given the speed of information and life in 2017. Of course, I am so grateful for the significant impact this surge of information has created in the cancer world. However, the biggest downside of the increased velocity is a world with so much noise.  Add cancer to this equation and it’s no wonder anxiety accompanies the disease.

Gandhi said, “There’s more to life than increasing it’s speed,” and it took a cancer diagnosis in September 2014 for me to understand the meaning of this quote. Information overload and busyness has become a chronic disease in our society. It seems as though everyone wants to move through life as fast as possible and news pours on us before we can formulate our own thoughts. I think it’s quite sad. None of us will be on our deathbed wishing we moved through this world more rapidly. Everybody and everything wants our time and attention, which are two of the most precious commodities for a cancer survivor.

Illness did not just force me to slow down – there was a chunk of time where it pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I went from endurance athlete to bed ridden in a matter of months, which was humbling and an experience filled with valuable lessons. As a result, I learned that the slower I go, the more I can actually accomplish well. Slowing down allows me to live with quality, in the moment.  And most importantly, decreasing my pace has made me acutely aware of the outside noise that distracts us from the life’s most important things, which aren’t things at all. They are our relationships and health.

I am very fortunate that I did not have (or want) to jump back into a busy life after going through active treatment. My life gives me the option to say, “no,” which I do often. When I’m in a particularly noisy period, I don’t just slow down the intake of information and activities, but do my best to pause all together in order to put all my time and attention into my personal self-care. I give myself the time and space to do my favorite things which include writing, yoga, reading, sleeping 8-9 hours, taking naps, meditating daily, writing my prayer and gratitude list, taking walks (gasp) without a device and reduce my time on the internet.

Whether you’re a cancer survivor or not, EVERYONE could benefit from slowing down, pausing and reducing the noise to enjoy the only guarantee any of us have, which is the present moment we are in.

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Sleeping Your Way Out of Cancer

We all want more sleep, yet most of us are walking around deprived of this essential element our bodies need. When we haven’t gotten enough sleep, our immune system is lower and our brain function reduced. We don’t have energy for the exercise which reduces our risk. Shall I continue? I believe that there’s a high probability the day that first rogue cell entered my body, I was probably sleep deprived. If I had not been, maybe cancer would have never happened.

Sadly, sleep deprivation has become a badge of honor in our society. We all know a person who resolves, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” or brags, “I’m more productive because I only get five hours a sleep each night.” What these people don’t realize is a lack of sleep could bring death sooner rather than later and their lack of sufficient sleep actually makes them less productive. I don’t know about you, but I want to live longer and work smarter, not harder.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs seven to nine hours each night. I’m no expert, but I think adding an hour or two if you’re affected by cancer or another illness is a prudent idea. The National Sleep Foundation also states your genes begin to change when you get anything less than six hours a night. Their researchers observed up to 700 different changes that can occur after a week of sleep deprivation.

My truth is, I am preaching about sleep after realizing my own problem two months ago which developed during treatment. Like many of us, I fell into the category of being perpetually exhausted. I would spend my days and nights laying in bed with the TV blaring. Once I was healthy again, falling asleep with the TV continued to be my security blanket and hindering the quality sleep my body craved.

On a long flight home after the holidays, I stumbled along a podcast where the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington was interviewed about her book, The Sleep Revolution. She explained how the majority of us are sleep deprived and as a result, not living up to our full potential. Her recommendation was to create a bedtime routine as we do for our children, who wake up with superhuman energy. Yes, some of this has to do with youth, but some of it has to do with the quality and quantity of sleep they get each night.

Taking Ariana’s advice, I began putting myself to bed. I turn on my salt lamp. I take a bath or shower. I dress myself in comfortable pajamas and not the holey, old t-shirt I used to sleep in. I take my pills. I rub some lavender oil behind my ears. I write a list of everything I’m grateful for. I read a book for enjoyment until I start to nod off. I turn the lamp off and fall asleep until the birds are chirping. There’s no cell phone in the room, no TV and no iPad. The verdict – I am sleeping nine hours a night and waking up more refreshed than ever. It’s been two months and I haven’t napped during the day once, which used to be a regular occurrence.

While undergoing treatment, most patients complain about either not having the energy to get out of bed or not being able to sleep at all. I get it and I say, during treatment, you need to do what works for you and addresses the immediate need. If you’re too tired, drag yourself out for 20 minutes of exercise and then back to bed if you’re still exhausted – if you can. If you can’t sleep, try putting yourself to bed like mom did when you were a kid. And when all else fails, talk to your doctor. Let them know how you’re sleeping and any challenges you’re having around the subject. I can guarantee you’re not the only patient who’s ever encountered this problem, so chances are, you’re doctor has a solution for improving the situation. And like everything, be persistent. Especially if you have a history of cancer. One of the best healing mechanisms of the body is triggered by sleep and don’t you want all those mechanisms working at their full capacity?

I can see some of your faces. You might be a parent, someone with a demanding job and/or that person who has never been a good sleeper. I’m here to politely acknowledge your challenge, but then Arianna Huffington, the National Sleep Foundation and I are here to tell you, it’s imperative you prioritize sleep. Put your mask on first before assisting others. Prioritize it above everything else and you’ll be so much better at everything else. And most important, you’ll be healthier and increase your odds of overcoming and avoiding disease.

Check out the National Sleep Foundation’s site, sleep.org for some interesting articles, statistics and recommendations on getting better sleep.

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