Breast Cancer and Bikram Yoga

September 27, 2013

Hi, I’m Bridget. I’m your yoga teacher and I am seven months cancer free. During a routine mammogram in January they discovered a large area of concern. On that Wednesday doctors performed several wire insertions, core samples and a biopsy. While the procedures were not incredibly painful, I was anxious and didn’t know what to expect or what to feel from one to the next. I practiced breathing slowly in through the nose and slowly out through the nose to head off the rising panic and to give myself a calming focus. I get savasanas now and how comforting it is to be still in the standing series.

They sent me home with ice packs, gauze, bandages and a very misshapen profile. The swelling continued as did the bleeding. I stopped practicing that week. And then I started to talk myself out of teaching that Sunday morning class. You know how it is. Just like with my practice or rather my excuses not to practice: “Ok, you can stay home just this once. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break and, of course, oh why not?!? This is the perfect excuse.”

I taught the Sunday class not because of any great feat of courage, but because I listened. You can do this: one breath at a time, one posture at a time….you’ve got this. And as a post script, the next time you think someone is judging you for what you’re wearing or what your postures look like, let that thought go. They are not looking at you.  And if they are, its about them, not you. Because I couldn’t raise my arm or wiggle into a snug fitting elastic top, I wore a loose button front shirt. The only shirt I had was tacky and Hawaiian. And no one noticed, or at least no one said a word…

On Monday the biopsy results confirmed breast cancer, specifically ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS. I am very fortunate. DCIS is the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer.

I don’t remember the next few weeks very well. During the day I had an incessant urge to get things done; at night I couldn’t sleep. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to go online to research the possibilities. I poked around looking up a few definitions here and there and when things became too scary I logged off. Thankfully I did not venture onto any blogs. I do recall having one hissy-fit. I had an appointment to have my hair colored. As I grabbed my car keys some of the thoughts and unknowns that I had stuffed began to spiral to the surface and I let them grow and take up too much space. The arms started waving, the voice grew very loud, the tears erupted and everything inside ripped wide open. Why am I bothering? This is a waste of money. I’m probably going to lose my hair anyway. Drama and probably a little fear. Its no different than being in the hot room. Don’t allow fear of the unknown or the attention-seeking drama to take over. If you do you will never move forward. So feel the feelings They will pass. Its okay to flop around like a fish the first class, but after that don’t be a drama queen. Just breathe.

I had to decide between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. A lumpectomy would be minimally invasive, but there would also be the risk of recurrence. It would be followed by radiation and five years of medication, or chemotherapy. Luckily for me the estrogen and progesterone receptors were positive so I would not need chemotherapy. In my case, if I chose a mastectomy, I would not require radiation or chemotherapy. And there might be that little added peace of mind that they “got everything”, although it comes with its own set of issues. My initial choice was to have a mastectomy, however that changed after learning that with a mastectomy I would most likely have a loss of range of motion and some degree of pain for some part or possibly the rest of my life. I decided to go through with a lumpectomy and marginalize the possibility of recurrence. The first surgery was not completely successful. Sixteen days later I had a second surgery with clear margins. I ended up with a partial mastectomy.*

I took my first class a week after surgery. It felt good to feel normal. It was comforting to go through the routine of the same twenty six postures with two breathing exercises. It was a safe place to unburden some of the feelings and some of the tears without making anyone feel they needed to give me some there-there. How often is anyone able to be in the moment by themselves, in the company of a wonderful group of people all struggling together? It was a great cover except for the fact that my nose lights up when I cry. Read Bridget’s post about how she had to adapt her postures post-op.

In the beginning my range of motion was limited. I did not have the same degree of stretch that I had before surgery, but I was able to stretch! In my mind I stuck out in class and I felt embarrassed, when in fact, what I felt was ego. Prior to surgery I thought there were only a handful of arm strengthening/pectoral enhancing postures. Now I know better. They all do. You just have to want to work those muscles.

Every posture required a modification. I was not in pain when I practiced, but I was aware of where the edge was. If I started to force something I would be reminded with a sharp feeling or an immediate muscle constriction after I finished the posture. Savasanas in the Cobra series, wow… those were another story, but that was an easy fix: I did the third trimester pregnancy modification. Unlike my tacky Hawaiian shirt, someone noticed. A student practicing next to me smiled after class and asked if I was pregnant. I’m in my fifties…..

Two weeks after surgery I began a six week stretch of radiation. Think heavy-duty sun burn pain with a cheap spray tan discoloration. Added insult to injury. While the area was more sensitive, I don’t think the radiation limited my practice. During the day I felt fatigued and had no zip. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel tired when I practiced. I felt energized.

I finished radiation in time for Memorial Day weekend. I “woo-hooed” for three days and started taking a medication called tamoxifen that Tuesday. I will be on this course for the next five years. Possible side effects are weight gain, mood swings and, my favorite, hot flashes. So far I have been able to avoid the weight gain. I don’t feel moody or irritable although I heard my husband cautioning someone under his breath, “Just don’t look her in the eye and you’ll be okay”. And I’ve got the market cornered on hot flashes. Winter can’t come fast enough! But in the hot room… I feel absolutely fine.

My recovery has been incredible and for that I have to thank the yoga both before the surgery and while I heal. It helps me with so much: being present, being mindful, accepting myself with my abilities and limitations for that day…accepting you with your abilities and limitations for that day, and obviously all the stretching and range of motion. Sure, some days are more challenging than others, but that was true before all this happened. When I practice, I feel better. Muscles slide over each other easier, tendons have just a little more give and I have added strength and energy. When I don’t practice, I age very quickly. Simply stated, I can’t afford not to practice yoga.

I am not alone in class. Several students shared their experiences, their thoughts and helpful insights. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Maybe you have your own fears or questions and would like to talk about it. Please set your mat up next to me. You’re not alone. There is so much healing to be found in the hot room. It’s a shame not to reach out to it.

bridget headshot 2Bridget Dubravsky is a yoga instructor, wife and entrepreneur from Southern Maine. You can find her teaching classes at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth.

* Oh give it up already! There is so much scar tissue and traumatic swelling you can’t tell which side.

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21 Replies to “Breast Cancer and Bikram Yoga”

  1. Bridget, thank you so much for sharing your story…tears in my eyes…so amazed by your bravery to share this story. I started at Bikram in January, and was always calmed by your ready smile and peaceful demeanor….never would have imagined what you were going through…hugs to you

    1. Amazing, right? It brought tears to my eyes at the BBL kick off when Bridge said, since practicing the yoga everything she has ever wanted in her life has come to her. This from a woman just months out of a partial mastectomy slated to 5 years of chemo drugs. She is a true inspiration.

  2. Bridget, thank you so much for sharing your story! You are an inspiration! I miss our Monday mornings at BYP!
    With love always,
    Lo

  3. Your grace and strength inspire! Thank you for sharing yourself with us. You are even MORE remarkable than I realized. God bless.

  4. So, here I sit, with tears in my eyes. Started my day with you today, and had no idea whatsoever. YOU’RE the one who hugged me in the midst of all of this because of everything I was going through…and said “Be kind to yourself, Rosanne…it will be OK”. Wow. You’re a HUGE blessing.
    xo

  5. Bridget, it takes courage to do what you did and even more to share your story to help those around you. Thank you for your bravery.

  6. Dear Bridget,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story!
    I have only been practicing BY for a little over month – After reading your blog I feel I need to share and also thank all of the instructors and the people who attend classes here – I have never experienced such an encouraging, safe and non-intimidating environment ! I am also a breast cancer survivor ( 6 years now) There are a lot of moves that I cannot do right now but I am focusing on what I can do and for now I am learning how to relax and keep as much of my mobility as possible!
    Thank you again! God Bless You!!!

  7. Bridget,
    Thank you so much for taking your time, and sharing your experience with all of us -you are a true inspiration for so many of us – and I thank you.

  8. Bridget, thank you for your story. I am sure you you had some moments of of grief that go beyond what can describe on paper. Your courage, strength and humanness is admirable and maybe will help some one else who is going through a similar challenge.
    See you in class! Dede

  9. Dear Bridget,

    Thanks for sharing. I had the same cancer as you and with a 75% chance of it spreading. I chose a mastectomy (one side, thank goodness). I even had reconstruction. I don’t know what I’d do without Taekwon Do or Bikram Yoga. I practiced a week after surgery as well. I have complete full range of motion and absolutely no pain keeping up with these meditative practices. I’ll be cancer free 2 years in February. You keep up the good work and thanks for your inspiration! Hope to catch your class soon! –Nettie

  10. I read your blog and was inspired. I practiced a year ago and like you diagnosed with breast cancer. I am 3 weeks post op and so glad to hear your story. I look forward to practicing in a supportive place
    Eileen

  11. Hi Bridget, thank you so much for sharing your story. I had my double mastectomy almost two years ago. Before the cancer I practiced Bikram three to four times a week. I was told because of the lymphnodes removed it was a bad idea and risky to do any heat activities because of lymphodema, is that the case do you know? Is it a risk? Thanks so much!! cheryl01970@gmail.com

    1. Great news Cheryl, you’re two years out! While I can’t answer your question directly – I did not have any lymph nodes removed, I can say practicing yoga certainly helped me regain range of motion and prevented the muscles under my arm from tightening up too much. Let me see if I get this right. Lymphedema occurs when your lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain lymph fluid. The compression, extension and flexion from the postures actually help to disperse/drain the fluid! As with buying a car, it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. All the best to you, Cheryl. I hope you get your yoga back!
      -Bridget

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