Yoga Therapy and Cancer: My Journey Toward Living a Meaningful Life
By Bill Miller, MA, RYT-500, Certified Viniyoga Teacher
I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage 4, in July of 2022. My wife and I were told by the oncologist that I had about two years to live. Prior to this diagnosis, I completed the 500 hour Viniyoga foundation requirements necessary for entry into the Viniyoga Therapy program. After being accepted and completing all of the prerequisites for it, the program was cancelled because of the Pandemic. I completed online courses in the interim, but later, my cancer diagnosis left any thoughts of completing the therapy program beyond my reach.
Broadly, yoga therapy is the clinical assessment and application of yoga principles and practices to individuals to achieve specific outcomes that will enhance well-being. I am most familiar with Viniyoga Therapy because of my training, teaching and practice of Viniyoga. Viniyoga Therapy addresses structural, physiological and emotional conditions in either individual or group settings. For example, a Viniyoga therapist could work with an individual one-on-one to reduce anxiety or could teach a class specific to anxiety reduction. Yoga therapists receive significantly more training than a 200 or 500 hour certified yoga teacher.
My interest in yoga therapy stems from my past work, and over the past several years, my desire to help others, and to live a meaningful life.
I formerly worked as a police investigator whose role it was to interview child physical and sexual abuse victims, as well as sexual assault victims. I received hours of training for that role. I had also received training in assessing the fitness of police officers and recruit applicants at the prestigious Cooper Aerobics Institute in Dallas, learning how to assess fitness and write exercise prescriptions. There were other influences, including being a “mental health” person in a critical incident stress debriefing team, and a facilitator for an educational support group for men who batter. I felt that yoga therapy would be an effective way to continue with skills that I had training and experience with.
After my initial cancer diagnosis, my wife and I were on a crazy emotional roller coaster, trying to find a hospital or clinic that could get me in for an MRI, a PET scan, a liver biopsy (I have cancer in my liver also), having a port placed in my chest, and then another MRI. During that time, I began experiencing more pain, always unpredictable and acute. It would double me over. I would force myself to take deep, even breaths—in and out—to gain some control over the pain and to remind myself to breathe evenly and to avoid chest breathing.
Since my diagnosis, I have been through many different kinds of chemo treatments. The drugs hit me hard three days after infusion. I experience intense muscle and joint pain. My lower body is weaker. I occasionally become dizzy when exercising, even at a reduced pace. I refuse, so far, to stay in bed. I force myself to get up, do some exercises (weights and bodyweight only) and sit in meditation. It seems that I sleep a lot more. In fact, I nap much more than I ever have in the past. I’m always tired and always in need of more sleep. My body and facial hair is falling out. My eyes water constantly. A friend has helped immensely by teaching my morning strength class on those weeks when I have treatments. I gradually begin to feel better, but then the process begins all over again.
Over the last several years, I have learned much about the effects of breath and meditation on one’s outlook toward life, toward living a meaningful life. I remember that when I was on the table in the operating room waiting for a liver biopsy to be performed, I began crying. I just couldn’t stop it. The nurse pulled her chair up beside me and said, “Let’s talk.”
I responded that she had to prepare for my procedure. She said, “This is part of my job.”
Between the diagnosis and trying to find medical facilities that could get me in for all the tests that I needed before treatment had taken me beyond emotional exhaustion. I still think of that nurse and how much she helped me, just by listening.
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is frequently a death sentence. The vast majority of patients, including myself, don’t get better. Chemo keeps me alive. There will come a point in the not-too-distant future that I will stop receiving treatment, either because nothing is working anymore or because I am unable, emotionally, to live with the side effects.
A yoga therapist first listens as an individual explains her or his story. A one hour session could be spent just on listening and taking notes as a client speaks. In many respects, I think that is the most important part of yoga therapy. I think of the nurse stopping everything and taking the time to listen to me. After listening, a client would want some recommendations on improving well-being. That could include an integrative yoga practice. An integrative practice could include any combination of yoga postures, breath techniques, chanting and meditation. It would all depend on the needs of the individual, and it is a practice arrived at through, in many cases, several visits with a client, gradually refining the practice in the process.
I think of all the well-intentioned people who told me early in the diagnosis that I should fight it, that I could get better. There were others who would tell me about their friend who had pancreatic cancer and later died from it. There were those who tried to tell me what to eat, what to drink, how to sleep and what to read. I learned to tune out all of those words of advice and seek those who would just listen. I think I would have made a pretty good yoga therapist.
I also think of something Gary Kraftsow said in training—that it is important that we believe in something. My spiritual path has taken me to a firm belief. It tends to be unwavering. It is something that a yoga therapist should not avoid, because it is a part of the process of living and dying. When I teach a class now, I try to pass on to others what I know. My reason for existence is to help others. That sounds pretty naive. It’s all that I have left. It’s my sole reason for sticking around.
If you are in search of a yoga therapist, a list of certified yoga therapists can be found in the website for The International Association of Yoga Therapists. Certification means that the yoga therapist has maintained the minimum requirements of attending an accredited therapy school and has completed the minimum of 24 CE (continuing education) yoga therapy-related credits every three-year period. If there are no certified yoga therapists in your area, I think it best to look for a yoga teacher with a comprehensive knowledge of the area of need, including Parkinson’s, trauma, cancer, muscular dystrophy, and depression, to name a few. A reputable yoga studio will list biographies of their teachers, including relevant training.
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