Friday, July 11, 2014
For our series on complementary cancer care, we spoke to five local women who tried different therapies.
Yoga and meditation
Her cancer story: Debra Richardson always tried her best to stay healthy — eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, cutting out dairy products, getting regular exercise — so that made her 2005 cancer diagnosis all the more shocking. In fact, she was about to leave for a two-week detoxification and cleansing program in Thailand when her doctor noticed a lump on her neck during a checkup. Soon afterward, the Upper Grandview resident had surgery to remove a plum-sized tumor from the left lobe of her thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that secretes hormones that influence the body's metabolism. Richardson had wanted to leave at least part of the thyroid intact, in case the mass wasn't malignant. Unfortunately, it was — so she underwent another procedure two months later to take out the rest of the gland. The cancer was advanced enough that she needed radioactive iodine therapy to kill any remaining cells. Though thyroid cancer is uncommon, most people who get it do very well. "It's pretty treatable," says Richardson. Even with those reassurances, she remembers feeling very scared. "This was one of the most difficult and terrifying times of my life."
The complementary therapy: Richardson, who's 58, had taken up yoga about six years before her cancer diagnosis, but after that, she became much more devoted. Now, she goes to classes at Nyack's Birchwood Center at least four times a week, although she's had to change her practice. Before, she preferred a brisk, flowing vinyasa yoga; as her throat healed from surgery, she switched to hatha yoga, which has easier movements and a slower pace, and which she continues to practice. "It's still powerful when you have to hold those positions for a long time," she says. "I feel strong and balanced."
The real change, however, has been adding meditation to her daily routine. A model and actress who travels frequently, Richardson felt a lot of work-related stress; at the time she found out about the cancer, she also had a second job at a salon and beauty boutique in Piermont. "I said, 'I have to calm down. I know about taking care of myself, but I have to do something more,'" she recalls. The Birchwood Center's owners suggested that she try one of the free meditation classes offered there throughout the week. A key component of ancient Eastern religious practices, meditation is a process that uses concentration to bring the body and mind to a peaceful state. "It's very difficult to quiet the chatter in the mind," says Richardson. Even after years of practice, she says it's sometimes harder to meditate than to achieve the toughest yoga pose. "Some days are better than others," she adds. "It's all about how you are on that day." Good day or bad, Richardson says, "I can't imagine my life without it."
Debra Richardson, 58, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005 and had surgery to remove her thyroid. She deepened her yoga practice and took up mediation in order to reduce stress and anxiety. ( Video by Tania Savayan / The Journal News ) Video by Tania Savayan / The Journal News
How it helped: Many cancer centers and support groups offer yoga and meditation; it's not fully known exactly how these age-old practices help those who are ill, but research is starting to provide stronger evidence of the physical and mental health benefits. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in March found that yoga lessened pain, fatigue and depression among breast cancer patients; new research from the University of Montreal shows that meditation improved mood and sleep problems in teens with cancer. Richardson tries to meditate for an hour every day, whether it's on the road or in the yoga-meditation room she's set up at home, a tranquil space with candles, crystals and statues of Buddha. For her daily practice, she lies down or sits comfortably, closes her eyes and focuses on breathing. When asked how to describe how she feels afterward, she says: "I feel like I'm almost out of my body. Your blood pressure lowers. You feel so clear and awake, like you had a great nap. It's amazing how it calms you down, and fast. I feel really revived and refreshed."
Her health now: Richardson is currently on Synthroid, a medication that replaces the hormones produced by the thyroid, though her doctor recently reduced her dosage because it could affect her bone density. "It's still a nice amount," she says. "I'm never tired." The American Thyroid Association notes that for patients over 45, or those with larger, more aggressive tumors, the prognosis for those with thyroid cancer remains very good, but the risk of a recurrence is high. Despite her earlier fears, Richardson has adopted a bright outlook. "With cancer, people just have to live like every single day is a gift. You have to live in the moment, and you can't think too far ahead."
About this project
Learn more about complimentary cancer care on our special page at www.lohud.com/mindbodycancer. Find stories like:
Retired Spanish teacher Gloria Esteves turned to therapeutic massage to manage the weakness, numbness, pain and extreme sensitivity.
New Rochelle's Louise Kuklis found peace in watercolor classes organized by Gilda's Club after her colon cancer diagnosis.
A relapse isn't the only health problem that plagues cancer survivors like Leslie Boxer. A holistic approach to treating and preventing chronic diseases can be key to maintaining a health life.
Life with cancer is stressful. Upper Grandview's Debra Richardson turned to a combination of yoga and meditation to bring the body and mind to a peaceful state, and provide a focus in the battle against the disease.
Breast cancer didn't stop New City's Kirsten Rota from pursuing her dreams: marriage, a family, a happy life. She found mental and physical relief through customized acupuncture treatments.
Equine therapy has brought joy to many people with disabilities. Why not cancer patients? The Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Cold Spring aids women with breast cancer by engaging them in horse-related activities.