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Jessica is a breast cancer survivor who practices Yoga and Pilates on a daily basis and is also a Pilates Instructor. We interviewed Jessica recently and this is what she had to say:
1. How old were you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
What was the year?Now that’s a date I won’t soon forget…May 17, 2002. I was 33 years old.
2. What kind of treatment did you receive?
I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor in my left breast and with a procedure called sentinel node biopsy to check if the disease had spread to my lymph nodes. Those results were positive, as were subsequent tests and scans that showed the disease had already spread to my liver. My disease was in Stage IV at primary diagnosis.
I didn’t have radiation, but I did have 49 weeks of chemotherapy. In that time I was on 3 different combinations of drugs, the 2nd regimen was for a clinical trial that involved the continuous infusion of the drug-a 500cc bag of drug hooked up to my port w/ a portable pump. I carried it around for ~6mos in a fanny pack and called it “Ivy”.
3. How long have you been a Pilates instructor?
4 years – the first year was teacher & training and apprenticing, but I’d been taking classes consistently for a year prior to that & of course, as a dancer, Pilates principles are an integral part of dance training.
4. Do you also teach other exercise classes? Which ones?
I used to teach dance classes – kids & adults, but now just fill-in occasionally for other teachers.
5. Was there a time when you could not continue your teaching because of your treatments or other issues? I so, how did that make you feel?
I’m very fortunate that I didn’t experience the severe side effects of chemo that many women do, like nausea & severe fatigue, but I was, of course, bald as a bowling ball!! During chemo, my blood counts did drop a bit low so I wasn’t able to do vigorous aerobic exercise. I was still able to teach my Mat classes with a little modifying of my own activity. I always looked forward to teaching because the people in my classes have always been (and still are) so supportive and encouraging of me throughout this experience. Teaching helped me maintain a sense of “normalcy” during such a chaotic time, not to mention helped me reinforce that my body is still strong, despite a serious disease & aggressive treatment.
6. If you were not able to continue teaching for a while, at what point after your diagnosis or treatment did you begin teaching again?
I did take a leave from training my private clients immediately after my diagnosis, but maintained my class schedule. In fact, I had the lumpectomy on a Tuesday and the following Saturday taught a Mat class with the drainage bulb still in place! Initially I had so many doctor’s appointments, tests, scans, etc. and I really needed the time off to research and educate myself about the disease and my treatment options.
Of course this was an extremely stressful time with lots of ups & downs. For me, the most difficult aspect of dealing with a serious diagnosis has been the psychological and emotional aspect.
7. Were you able to continue teaching during treatment? How did you motivate yourself to keep it up?
Just being physically able to teach Pilates during treatment reinforced my confidence that I was still strong & healthy, cancer or not. Also, the support and encouragement I received by friends, co-workers, clients and the people in my classes really helped me stay positive.
8. As a breast cancer survivor, how did Pilates and/or Yoga help in your recovery?
I truly believe that because I never felt “sick” or physically compromised, I was able to stay focused and really believe in my complete return to health…and HAIR! It is really amazing how strong and resilient the human body is, even in the face of a disease like cancer and drugs like chemotherapy.
Pilates and Yoga helped me address the physical needs of my body to stay strong and conditioned throughout my treatment. Also, both forms of exercise require you to be “connected” and aware of how your body is working-the mind has to stay focused on the activity, so there’s no room in your head to obsess about all the other difficult issues of being a cancer patient. It was really helpful to give my brain a break from all the worrying & stressing and just focus on the physical activity. And again, the physical activity helped reinforce that I was strong & healthy-that carried over into mental confidence & peace.
9. What do you think are the benefits of continuing your exercise routine during and after recovery?
The physical benefits during recovery are obvious, but you do have to be mindful not to over-tax your body during treatment. Your body already has a lot of work to do to repair and heal itself, so you must be careful not to add to that burden with vigorous exercise or unnecessary stress.
I believe that being in good physical condition and practicing a healthy, balanced life-style before my diagnosis was key to being able to endure 49 weeks of chemotherapy. Now I view exercise, stress management, & physical health and wellness as part of my prescription for continued health and insurance that if I should experience another recurrence, my body will be strong enough to endure again. I’ve always said that if I have to do this (chemo) again, I can handle it, but I’d really prefer not to.
(In September 2003, routine CT/PET scans revealed a single spot in my liver that was confirmed to be a new lesion. I did 4 weeks of chemo and that was sufficient to kill the tumor! And….I’ve even kept most all of my hair this time!)
10. Are there other breast cancer survivors in your classes that you are aware of? Have they ever shared experiences with you or shared encouraging words regarding your teaching?
One of my clients is a Breast Cancer survivor. She’s wonderful! We often talk about the trials and tribulations of living in the aftermathwith this disease. Some times we’re so busy chatting we forget our workout. She had a bilateral mastectomy with tram flap reconstruction-part of her rectus abdominus was used to rebuild her breasts. As a result, she lost a significant amount of her core strength, though she’s made incredible improvements to restore strength and balance to her torso. She’s one of my greatest success stories.
One of the kindest things I’ve been told by people that take my class or train is that I’ve inspired them (I don’t really understand how, but if the end result is a good one, them I’m happy for that) and that my staying active and visible is a good example for other women that may have to face this disease, as well as those in perfect health.
I’ve had clients tell me that watching me teach a Pilates class, bald and with an IV actively infusing drug whileI’m teaching, has had a tremendous impact and helped motivate them to push harder, challenge themselves a bit more and never give up!
11. What other exercies or activites are you involved in?
I walk and rollerblade with my dog at the park every chance I can get, as well as still try to get in some dance classes whenever possible.
12. Is there are words of advice/encouragement you can share with other survivors regarding Pilates/Yoga during or after their recovery?
Pilates and Yoga are more than just exercise; both encourage finding and maintaining balance in your life-beyond the physical aspect. Even when you’re completely consumed with a serious, frightening diagnosis, it is important to still take the time to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Cancer, and all that comes with it, is only a small part of the person. It does not have to define and dominate your life. Find confidence in your ability to recuperate, heal and return to health.
13. Can you share a Pilates or Yoga exercise with us that is your favorite?
I absolutely love Pilates and everything it offers-teaching Mat classes, training on the equipment-all of it. It is so challenging yet relaxing and rewarding. There isn’t any one exercise that I favor.
I always look forward to the entire Yoga regimen-from the rigorous strength/balance poses to the meditation. But if I had to pick one, it would be Trikonasana (Triangle) and all its variations.