Sandy Fennell on How to Comeback to Yoga after Cancer

cancer Apr 29, 2019

This is a very special guest post from my good friend, Sandy. I think Sandy is completely incredible – not only does she balance an Ashtanga practice with a full-time job, husband, two busy teenagers, and four dogs, but she has continued to do so after enduring a breast cancer diagnosis. On top of that, she’s managed to find some balance in the midst of it all. I think Sandy’s experience is an inspiration for all of us – not only women, not only people who’ve faced devastating illnesses and injuries, not even only yogis; all of us. We can come back from anything, and we can come back stronger – sometimes life just presents us a new definition of strength.

In June of 2016, I traveled to New York with friends to practice with Sharath – the current holder of the Ashtanga lineage. It’s hard to describe the experience of coming together with fellow practitioners from around the world, moving and breathing as one, while Sharath led a class of over 200 people. After three days of led intermediate series and two days of primary series, I ended the week feeling connected and strong.


Sandy practicing right before her breast cancer diagnosis.

As I made my way home to DC, I received a call from my sister – her husband, my brother-in-law had been diagnosed with stage IV sarcoma, a horrible disease with a terrible prognosis. The call ended and I sat in my car, all the wonderful feelings from the previous week evaporating. Compounding the stress and sadness of this news was an order from my own doctor to schedule a diagnostic ultrasound for my left breast. I had noticed a lump a couple of weeks earlier and needed to follow up. My doctor hadn’t been overly concerned, so I wasn’t either. The odds seemed almost impossible that I could receive similar news to my brother-in-law. After all, we were both young and healthy – he was only 52 and I was 47. I had just made it through a week of led classes with Sharath and was still feeling invincible. Confident in my good health, I made an appointment the next day. 

Several days later, sitting in the radiologist’s office, I learned that I had stage II breast cancer. A week after that, I was told I would need a mastectomy and an aggressive course of chemotherapy. The doctors were optimistic about my chances of a full recovery and moved quickly to begin scheduling tests and procedures, and it was during a painful round of biopsies that I really began to find extra comfort and coping in my Ashtanga practice. I probably freaked plenty of doctors and technicians with rounds of ujjayi breath, but I found the breathing technique calming (and a good distraction from my current situation). 

It was soon after that, though, that I entered the Mysore room, bruised and sore, to take refuge in what I knew would be my last vigorous physical practice for quite some time. I went through my advanced series, taking pleasure in each complicated pose and wondering if I would ever be able to do any of it again. How would I maintain my strength through chemo? How would I ever do a backbend after a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery? Would I ever be myself again? I realized in those early days how strongly I identified with my practice, and how attached I had become to my ability to move with strength and ease. I was terrified to fill my body with toxic chemicals, and I felt sad and betrayed by a body I had worked so hard to maintain. 

The anticipation of the chemotherapy was luckily worse than the actual treatment. There were some difficult days ahead, but my body was tolerating the treatment fairly well. I had the support of my Mysore community and my friends and family, and I managed to make it through the full round of treatments with only a few complications. My doctor advised me to stay active, so I tried to take a walk or practice every day, and was surprised at how much of my practice I was able to maintain throughout the treatment. The normalcy of my old routine provided such comfort. Granted, it was a reduced practice – maybe sun salutations, standing postures, a few primary poses and backbends – but my pride slowly got out of my way and I was able to grow to simply appreciate what I was able to do.

As I had feared, coming back to my practice after surgery was certainly difficult. But it wasn’t impossible. With the support of my community, family, and teachers, I have gotten back most of my pre-cancer practice. I can’t say it’s been easy. The drugs and assault on my body took almost two years to overcome, but in the last several months I’ve begun not only to feel like my old self again, but to actually feel better than I had before. I am stronger from what I’ve experienced and overcome. I still feel attached to my practice, but I have gained a new, more balanced appreciation for all it can offer. I rejoice in every sun salutation, every slight movement. I am kinder and gentler with my body now; I don’t push through or overdo, but honor how I feel each day and am grateful for every minute I spend on my mat. I now know that I don’t need to do an advanced practice to feel like a real Ashtangi, because the true value of my practice lies in my consistency and steady breath. (I recently completed a silent meditation treat with a senior teacher, and have to tell you that sitting and breathing for hours was more challenging than any pose!)

I am beyond happy to have regained my physical practice, but am also so proud to have grown to be able to move forward with a more balanced approach. Sometimes it takes a major health issue to show us just how precious our physical capabilities are. Sometimes you have to face losing something to really learn what you still have to gain from it. Sometimes it’s when we feel like we’re at our weakest that we find the greatest strengths we never knew we had. 


Sandy teaches Mysore at DCAshtanga on Monday nights. Check it out.
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