Coping With Cancer Through Yoga and Meditation

March 17, 2020
Wendy Campbell

Wendy Campbell is based in Naples, Florida, where she teaches public yoga classes, workshops, and private lessons. She is a cancer survivor, yoga teacher, and founder of Survive & Thrive, a nonprofit organization whose mission is empowering cancer survivors with yoga and mindfulness practices, particularly through the Surviving Cancer Yoga Program.

I remember the exact moment when my life began to change. I was newly married, waitressing, and uninsured. At the time, for all I knew, I was healthy. But one afternoon at work, I felt a golf ball-sized lump in my neck. My heart sank. At first, I told myself, “It’s just a swollen lymph node. It’ll go away.” But it didn’t.

After a few weeks of denial, I finally went to the emergency room. A biopsy was performed, and I went back a week later for the results. I remember being slightly annoyed that I had to go back because I still believed I was fine. When the surgeon walked in, he told me it was Hodgkin lymphoma. My immediate treatment plan involved chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I was scared and stunned.

From there, grace carried me. I was funneled into a county system for working, uninsured people and was able to get the care and the treatments I needed to save my life.

Planting seeds

When I was younger, I used yoga’s physical benefits off and on to release muscle tension after skiing and running. But I hadn’t yet found true meaning in my practice until after my cancer experience.

Post-cancer life was awkward ground to navigate because I had a certain perception of myself pre-cancer. When I stepped back into my life after treatment, I face-planted. I was faced with loss of strength, lung capacity, and confidence. My appearance had changed. Basically, I felt like an alien from another planet. What was l? Who was I? At age 30, I knew I had a second chance. But at the time, I was just trying to survive my own mental jungle. This is when my yoga practice became the pathway for my healing. At times, it felt like my lifeline.

Yoga: A tool for coping

After I completed the treatment plan and final PET scan to see if the treatment had worked, my oncologist told me that my scan was clear, and I should “go and enjoy my life.” Whoa! Just like that? What I had just gone through had to mean something. Was it really as simple as pressing “play” and things would be the same as they were before?

Well, not quite. It turned out I needed a complete reboot. My physical body was alive, but my mind was a mess. I needed to find mental balance as part of my healing. My yoga practice became a tool to help me trust my body again, to get my racing thoughts under control, and to start to understand the connection between mind and body. Taming my doubts and fears was challenging, to say the least. I had to work through issues of worthiness as well as a fear of recurrence.

Practicing deep breathing and yoga postures helped me to calm my nervous system and slowly and safely rebuild strength in my body. Meditation helped me to break my cycle of negative thoughts. It taught me how to put a period at the end of a thought. Even now, my yoga practice helps me to be okay with not knowing what is next and to stay present, especially when life gets challenging.

My yoga practice was and continues to be what helps me let go and keep moving forward. It helps me to become more aware of how I interact in the unfolding of my life. It's my greatest form of health insurance and most importantly, it reminds me that grace is always present. 

There are unique physical and emotional needs for patients and survivors. But yoga and meditation has helped me improve my quality of life through easing physical symptoms, reducing fear and anxiety, and having positive effects on my attitude.

Being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma continues to inform my life and keep me on my mission. For the last 10 years, I have been able to dedicate my life to teaching yoga, with a specialty in teaching yoga to those faced with a cancer diagnosis.

How to get started with or expand your yoga practice

If you can breathe, you can practice yoga. It starts with self-compassion. Carve out a little time in your day, even if it’s just 5 minutes. Be patient with yourself and remember, it’s a process of self-inquiry through the mind/body connection. The physical postures are a tool to practice awareness. Your flexibility or strength do not define how advanced your practice is. Whether you are just starting or have an existing yoga practice, consistency is key. Try following these daily practices to help build that consistency:

  • Practicing some deeper belly breaths.

  • Keeping a daily gratitude journal. Keep a notebook and simply write something when you wake up and when you go to bed that you are grateful for.

  • Sitting with your eyes closed and putting a period between thoughts. This is helpful for breaking a constant stream of anxious thoughts.

  • Reading inspirational poems or passages.

  • Doing gentle, guided movements.

  • Connecting with nature. Take a short walk outside or simply sit in the fresh air and breathe.

When life calls us to take a deeper look, as scary as it can be, we must listen. Otherwise, the call will keep getting louder. To make yoga practice meaningful, we need to take the lessons of yoga off the mat and into our lives. Then, we can make every breath count.


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