Marcia Mercier discovered yoga after a diagnosis of breast cancer. She shares her experiences of how yoga helped her move forward both physically and mentally as she healed. Marcia also offers guidance on how and why yoga can support breast cancer treatment.
My personal experience of breast cancer, at the age of 32, left me feeling shell-shocked and overwhelmed. Moving forwards with life was not as easy as I’d imagined. I felt tearful most of the time and was short-tempered with my two young children. I needed to rebalance my body both physically and emotionally. Yoga was my answer and from my first class I was hooked. I was grateful that this ancient practice offered me a way to heal myself from the inside out. That was over 22 years ago. I’ve since trained as a yoga teacher and now specialise in teaching yoga for those diagnosed with breast cancer. I want more people to understand the ways in which yoga supports breast cancer treatment.
Here are just five ways that yoga can help breast cancer recovery:
Reducing stress and anxiety
“Yoga helps to calm and balance the nervous system.”
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is devastating; the shock of having a life-threatening disease can leave you with a whole host of emotions: numbness, shock and disbelief, to feeling stressed at the disruption of normal life and worrying about the future. Even when treatment is over, you can be left feeling anxious about the cancer coming back and be overly tuned into every little ache, pain, lump or bump you might feel in your body – this is perfectly normal.
Stress and anxiety can take its toll on the body, triggering stress hormones and putting the nervous system into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. This can affect sleep and the body’s natural ability to heal. Yoga helps to calm and balance the nervous system through a combination of breathing techniques (pranayama), poses (asanas), as well as mindfulness and meditation, which stimulate the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system, enabling us to feel calmer. Lengthening the exhalation is helpful to calm the heart rate and supine poses, using props to support the body, are calming and restorative.
“Practising yoga regularly reduces fatigue.”
Fatigue is a common side effect of treatment for breast cancer. This can continue for some time after treatment has finished. Many studies have shown that practising yoga regularly reduces fatigue. The solution for fatigue isn’t necessarily rest. You can draw fresh energy (prana) into the body by moving through a sequence of yoga poses in time with the breath. This can result in feeling uplifted and energised. Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) is both restorative and energising – all you need is a wall or door!
The practice of Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) guides the student through 61 points throughout their body. This promotes a state of deep rest and relaxation by shifting the brain waves to a more restorative state, allowing the body to rest and heal. Meditation also helps to calm the nervous system and is a useful tool that can be practised without a teacher at the beginning and end of the day.
Building bone and muscle strength
“Yoga can build back strength safely and gently.”
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can affect healthy bone and muscle cells causing them to weaken. Lack of movement and periods of inactivity, due to cancer-related fatigue, add to loss of muscle tone. The two main muscle groups that are affected tend to be the gluteus muscles (buttocks and hips) and the quadriceps (thigh muscles). Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormonal treatment can cause loss of bone density (osteoporosis) and bone volume (osteopenia). Yoga can build back strength safely and gently. Weight-bearing poses such as Tree Pose, where weight is balanced on one leg, stimulate the production of new bone cells when held for around 30 seconds. Moving dynamically in and out of standing poses, contracting and releasing muscles, stimulates blood flow to the joints and builds muscle in the legs and hips.
“I remember, after my breast surgery, how I just longed to be able to do the most mundane everyday chores again.”
Breast cancer surgery can leave you with limited mobility in the upper body, especially around the area of surgery and radiation where scar tissue is present. Treatment fatigue means that you may have longer periods of inactivity than usual. All of this can leave you feeling stiff, weak and unable to go about your daily tasks with ease. It’s important to regain good functional movement throughout treatment.
I remember, after my breast surgery, how I just longed to be able to do the most mundane everyday chores again. I longed to hang washing on the line or make the bed. A yoga sequence that focuses on stretching and releasing tight muscles, particularly around the upper body: shoulders, chest, armpit and side body can help bring back mobility to these areas. Child Pose is a good pose as it improves flexibility and is calming at the same time.
“Yoga helps you take back some control of your body.”
Treatment and surgery take their toll on the body in a variety of ways. It’s common to feel a sense of loss of control over your own body. From the moment of diagnosis, you entrust your body to a team of medical professionals. You resign yourself to get through whatever you need to in order to survive. Life is ruled by one hospital appointment after another. Yoga helps you take back some control of your body. It promotes well-being, allowing you to feel a sense of self-care and nourishment. The techniques of breathing and moving your body with self-awareness are extremely empowering.
About Marcia Mercer:
Marcia‘s yoga for breast cancer classes focus on strengthening and mobilising the whole body and creating a sense of calm and well being. She has trained with Vicky Fox to specialise in teaching yoga for cancer. Marcia is based in North London. Discover more about yoga for breast cancer treatment on Marcia’s instagram account (@yogaforbreastcancer).