Mel, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am an extrovert and a chatty patty, but also a very private person. I never wanted or thought I would be on social media. When I was in Afghanistan and teaching yoga post cancer I thought it might be helpful to share these experiences in case it may help someone else. So I started my Instagram account in 2019. I was so clueless on how to use the app I had to ask someone to teach me how to use it. So I went from having no social media presence to posting pictures of my exposed breasts and buttocks - quite a jump! But as you can imagine, I’ve learned about so many different organizations and connected with so many amazing people through my Instagram account, including you!
Most people know me for yoga, but there’s a lot more to me than yoga. I have a lot of hobbies and interests, it’s just finding the time to do them. I love to dance, cook, and since the pandemic, grow plants. I like to keep my private life private, but ask me anything about yoga, cooking or plants and I’ll talk your ear off.
We know getting diagnosed with breast cancer is devastating, how did it impact your life?
I was living and working in Afghanistan when I received the email that I had breast cancer. I was alone in my barracks room in Kabul shocked to receive the news as I was young and healthy. I had no idea what this meant for me, my job, or my future. I didn’t tell anyone about it for a week, then I finally told my boss as I had to prepare to leave to get surgery and treatment. Because I was diagnosed in Afghanistan I became medically disabled in Afghanistan, so was on medical leave for a year before I could return to work (I had to be cancer-free for a year before I could return to work by policy). So this disrupted my life in a major way. But, the silver lining was my cancer center is in NYC, so it was the best place for me to be as a single person because there was always something to eat, see, or do! I love NYC!
I was so active and teaching yoga up until my mastectomy, then suddenly, for the first time in my life, I experienced physical disability and limitations. After my mastectomy I could not raise my right arm above my waist! After months of PT I regained mobility, but it was the strangest thing for me to experience. I also chose one of the most difficult reconstructive surgeries to heal from, especially for a yogi. I had a PAP flap which takes fat and tissue from the upper and inner thighs to rebuild the breast, so I have incisions below both of my buttocks, which is an important part of the body when you bend or move. I couldn’t practice yoga with asanas (poses) for months while I was recovering from my reconstructive surgeries (I had 5 reconstructive surgeries), and I don’t know if my legs will ever be the same pre-reconstruction (my legs are still very tight).
I am a 6-year survivor now. I am a lot more comfortable with my body than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m very proud of how much my body has gone through and healed.
Yoga is such an important part of your life, how did you first get involved?
I first started teaching yoga at military bases in Afghanistan when I lived and worked there. It was not my job, rather I was a volunteer yoga teacher. (All fitness classes on base were taught by volunteers.) After arriving on base I was so excited to see they had a yoga class! I attended the class and was delighted to see a retired Air Force pilot teaching. He was going on leave soon so told the class if we wanted to keep the class going someone was going to have to teach while he was gone. He asked if there were any volunteers. I remember looking around the class and no one was responding so I thought to myself, there’s no reason why I can’t teach the class. So I raised my hand and volunteered. Small detail, I had never taught yoga before in my life! :-) I had done yoga for at least 10 years though, so I had an idea of the poses and how flows and sequences went. I did a lot of googling and watched YouTube videos, then I just started teaching. After a year of teaching yoga several times a week, I enjoyed it so much I decided to get certified. Four months after getting my yoga certification I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I will always be grateful for this series of events, that I could learn yoga, breathwork, and meditation while I was strong and healthy, as these were the tools that helped me mentally and physically go through and heal from all of the cancer stuff.
In 2021 I got certified in “Yoga for Cancer Recovery” which really helped raise my understanding of how to teach yoga specific to those recovering from cancer. I’ve used this knowledge, along with my personal experiences with cancer/surgery recovery, to teach the cancer community. Also, I’ve received a scholarship to do a yoga4cancer Teacher Training in a few months, and I am so excited for this opportunity to learn more! It’s one of my passions to teach yoga to others and see them feel the benefits of this movement and practice in their own lives.
Now that I’m 6 years out from my mastectomy, I continue to do yoga to help me in survivorship because I still have tightness in my chest, I think I have some returning cording, and my legs are still tight from my reconstruction. Yoga helps me stay grounded and connected with my body.
How has yoga helped you through your cancer diagnosis?
Yoga has helped me mentally and physically go through my cancer diagnosis and all of my surgeries and recovery. Even when I couldn’t physically do yoga, my yoga practice went inside, meaning, I switched to breathwork and meditation, which strengthened my yoga practice overall.
I fast tracked going through all of my reconstructive surgeries and returned to work literally as soon as I could, so I was still recovering when I returned to work in Afghanistan after a year of being gone. It was my goal to teach yoga on base again. I still remember the first class I taught after returning from my medical leave. No one knew I had had cancer or all of the physical healing I had to go through to be there again teaching, so it was a quiet triumph and major milestone for me in my recovery. Yoga kept me motivated in my physical recovery so I could teach yoga again in Afghanistan to the military service members and civilians stationed there.
Yoga has so many benefits for those recovering from cancer! In fact, there’s a book specifically written on this topic called, “Yoga for Cancer” by Tari Prinster, who is also a breast cancer survivor. Here are 10 benefits of yoga listed in this book:
- Detoxifies the body
- Strengthens the body
- Increases motion and flexibility
- Keeps the spine strong
- Strengthens the Immune System
- Helps manage weight gain
- Helps manage pain
- Helps manage fear and anxiety
- Enhances body image
- Enhances empowerment and well-being
I can confirm all of these benefits, and see these benefits in women I teach. Yoga also helps us reconnect to our bodies after all of the permanent changes we experience going through cancer surgeries and treatments. I could go on and on about the benefits of yoga and cancer recovery, but I think this is a good list.
How did your surgeries affect your practice?
You’re right, PAP flaps are so rare I’ve only met 5 women that have had it (2 in-person, 3 virtually). I think getting a PAP flap for breast reconstruction was the most difficult reconstruction to go through for a yogi because the incisions to retrieve the tissue are right under your butt, which is a very important part of the body for bending, stretching, and moving in general. I literally could not bend for weeks after surgery while those surgical sites were healing. This not only affected my yoga practice, but affected everything I did on a daily basis. Maybe this is TMI, but I couldn’t sit on the toilet for weeks so had to use a standing urinal, etc.
I did a lot of walking after my reconstructive surgeries as I couldn’t really bend or do much else. I could do upper body stretches which was good, just not a lot with my legs. When I was healed up enough to finally bend over, I still didn’t do deep stretching for about a year because I was afraid I would split open my surgical incisions, or cause a lot of scarring and stretching. I was super conservative when it came to bending and stretching for about a year. Only after I returned to work in Afghanistan did I really try stretching deeply again, like downward dog and malasana.
What tips do you have for someone newly diagnosed with breast cancer that is trying to find their way into healthy lifestyle choices and practices?
Yoga helps us mentally just as much (if not more) as it helps us physically. Getting a cancer diagnosis fills us with all kinds of emotions like fear and anxiety, especially if it’s late stage. One of yoga’s benefits I listed above is, “Yoga helps manage fear and anxiety”. There is something really powerful in taking time to sit with yourself, being present with your breathe, and moving your body in awareness.
For anyone newly diagnosed or recovering from breast cancer surgeries or treatment, I recommend doing at least 4 yoga classes to see how it makes you feel. For cancer patients/survivors/previvors/thrivers, I strongly recommend doing yoga with someone trained in teaching yoga for cancer as it really helps in providing appropriate stretches for your body.
But as much as I love yoga, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I encourage people diagnosed or recovering from breast cancer to find their favorite type of movement, then do it consistently. You’ve heard me say this again and again, “Movement is Medicine”. It’s one of my daily mantras. Movement comes in many forms, and it all helps.
Yoga is a true passion of yours, what else do you love doing as much as you love yoga?
I love to do a lot of things we can’t do so easily right now during the pandemic with Omicron, like traveling, going to live music concerts, taking in-person fitness classes, eating out, etc. There are a lot of virtual opportunities to do these things, but nothing really beats the in-person experience. I also love to cook, dance, listen to the radio, and grow plants!
Community is everything to us here at AnaOno, what does Never Alone mean to you?
“Never Alone” to me means having others you can share personal experiences, challenges, as well as triumphs with. Sometimes this can be just one person that makes you feel seen and supported. There are so many women that get diagnosed with breast cancer (it’s the most common form of cancer), so there are a lot of women, and young women, that have had similar experiences. It’s just a matter of finding them. Fortunately there are so many breast cancer organizations and support groups that I think it’s fairly easy to find and connect with others nowadays. Including AnaOno! I’ve met some amazing women through teaching the New Year’s yoga flow, and look forward to connecting with more as we continue sharing this practice at your platform.