by Leona Downey
It felt like the most ironic turn of events of all time when I found out I had a stage 3a breast cancer. As a medical oncologist, who had specialized in the treatment of breast cancer for 15 years, I knew that breast cancer could affect anyone. But somehow I thought, in some cosmic way, that it wouldn't affect me. I mean, I had dedicated so much of my life to helping women fight this disease, I couldn't possibly also get the disease, right? Wrong. At age 40, a large tumor developed in my breast and spread to local lymph nodes, and aggressive chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation ensued. I had been an active yoga practitioner for 7-8 years before breast cancer and had known that it helped me with many things (chronic back pain resolved, I felt more energy, stress eased, muscles toned). And I had always thought yoga would be helpful to my patients, for complaints like weight gain or anxiety, which commonly accompany breast cancer treatment. But I had no idea the depth or the breadth of the benefit that yoga could have for a breast cancer patient until I went through it myself. I truly believe that yoga (including much more than asana alone) got me through my cancer treatment and helped me recover to a place where I feel much stronger, healthier, and happier than I was before I had cancer. It is easy to think that cancer has to change us for the worse like we will have physical limitations, weaknesses, or vulnerabilities as a result of the disease and the treatment. But yoga has taught me that with the proper perspective and approach, a breast cancer diagnosis (which seems so scary and horrible) can actually turn into a wonderful opportunity for growth and optimization of health in body, mind, and spirit. Your "new normal" can be the best version of you yet! Study of the Yamas and the Niyamas helped me get my mind right, in the way that I thought about my situation during and after my cancer treatment. For example, focusing on Santosha helped me find contentment instead of frustration with feeling sick during chemo or when the result of my breast reconstruction wasn't perfect. Svadhyaya, or self-study, helped me to think about what I was learning through the experience, like patience or humility or how to ask for help. Asana practice was huge in restoring my range of motion after a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, and radiation left my chest wall and shoulders very stiff and sore. Losing my yoga practice was one of my biggest fears, and a slow and steady return to asana allowed me to prove to myself that I could get back to full strength and activity, which was so empowering. Pranayama calmed my mind when I felt fear about the potential long-term outcome of my cancer, or when I was going crazy anxiously awaiting test results. And mantra meditation literally took the chemotherapy-induced abdominal pain away, getting me through some very tough days on the couch. Maybe Ganesh really did remove that obstacle of pain for me, or maybe the chanting stimulated my vagus nerve, sending calming signals to my inflamed gut. But whatever it was, it worked! In these ways and more, yoga can support us through the breast cancer experience, helping us connect to our true selves, to a place of peace, of gratitude for every day - including the tough ones, and of reverence for the beauty that is this life. I only hope to help others examine how yoga might benefit them in their journey.
Leona started practicing yoga in her early 30's, initially to try to help with some chronic back pain she had suffered since her teens. She quickly realized that yoga helped her back pain, but also had myriad other benefits, including overall physical fitness, improved sleep, decreased stress, and a general sense of joy that began to spill over into her life off the mat. As she began to practice more regularly, she realized that she wanted more of this peace and calm in her life, and less stress and constant pressure to accomplish some ever changing goal. She had worked for years as a medical oncologist, treating women (and a few men) with breast cancer. She loved helping patients through this very difficult illness, but decided it was time for a change. She and her husband wanted to slow down and simplify their lives, focusing more on a healthy lifestyle, so they retired and moved to Puerto Vallarta. Shortly after moving to Vallarta, she found Anna's shala, and fell in love with the davannayoga style and community. A passion arose in her to learn more about the origins of yoga, the philosophy behind this amazing practice, and why it works to improve our bodies, minds, and spirits in so many ways.
Ironically, just over a year after moving to Vallarta, Leona developed an aggressive breast cancer herself, requiring chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. More than ever, during the time she was undergoing treatment, she turned to yoga (including pranayama, asana, mantra, and meditation) to comfort, heal, and strengthen her body, her mind, and her spirit. Anna and everyone at davannayoga supported her, as she came into class with her bald head and weakened body, often not able to make it through a full class. She truly attributes much of her recovery to the power of yoga, and feels stronger now than ever before. In October 2017, just one year after her cancer diagnosis, she completed Anna's 200 hour teacher training, and is now very excited to share the amazing benefits of the practice of yoga with others.
Leona runs yoga for breast cancer programs at davannayoga and trains yoga teachers how to work with students who are currently going through a breast cancer experience, or are healing from a recent breast cancer experience.