Modified version of yoga helps treat cancer patients’ body, mind

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(David Rolfe/Winston-Salem Journal) Angela Gallagher teaches a low-impact yoga class for oncology patients and survivors at the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, NC, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Angela Gallagher’s yoga class last week was quiet, dark and full.

The pairs of bare feet set into each blue mat belonged to women of all ages, races and walks of life, but with one common thread, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.

The women are all cancer survivors.

“Take your breath into your whole body,” Gallagher coached, sitting on a chair at the front of the small room in the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center at Forsyth Medical Center.

“Seldom are we ever in the moment,” she said, encouraging her students to turn their attention to their breathing and movements.

Gallagher has been teaching a seated, modified version of yoga for cancer patients, survivors and their caretakers for the past four years. The movements are gentle, designed to allow even patients in the middle of treatment to participate.

Many classic yoga poses and sequences — such as the sun salutation — have been modified to be done while seated.

“We have nice, big, soft chairs we work from,” Gallagher said. “We help get their movement back, do things to help with balance.”

It’s not just a gentler version of yoga, though. Gallagher said the class focuses on issues specific to cancer patients. She does a series of arm movements targeting the lymph nodes.

Cancer can spread through lymph nodes, so many cancer patients have one or more removed. They can also swell during cancer. She also teaches pressure-point techniques to help reduce nausea or leg cramps, which can be caused by some cancer treatment drugs.

Yoga is not just dealing with physical issues, Gallagher said, but also emotional ones.

“Emotionally, they’re still pretty scarred,” Gallagher said. “It’s a different mindset to get back the trust in their bodies.”

Ann Zuhr said she felt betrayed by her body when she received the diagnosis of breast cancer four years ago.

Though she’d never done yoga before, Zuhr said she started attending Gallagher’s weekly class shortly after her radiation treatments.

“I wanted to try and do everything that was available,” she said. “Anything for support. Angela is a wonderful support.”

Now that Zuhr has been cancer-free for more than three years, she’s often the one giving support to new class members, offering a glimpse into a brighter future for women who are still going through treatment.
“We support each other in the class,” Zuhr said. “It’s good to see people who came out on the other side.”

Nancy Creel, specialist at the cancer center, said yoga is one part of the movement toward treating a patient’s whole body and mind — not just the cancer. Creel said patients are also given access to resources for education, nutrition and other forms of exercise as supplemental parts of their cancer treatment.

“We treat everything,” Creel said.

The Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center also has a chair yoga class for cancer patients and their caregivers Tuesdays from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The class is taught by Lynn Felder, who is also the Journal’s Arts and Entertainment reporter, and Sue Evans, a registered yoga teacher with a specialty in yoga for people with chronic illness.