Lois Penkos, Breast Cancer Survivor

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Bringing body, mind & spirit together

Yoga benefits patients from diagnosis through survivorship

Practitioners of the ancient Indian discipline of yoga have long touted its many benefits, including increased flexibility, improved muscle strength and better balance and posture. But increasingly, research is confirming yoga can do much more for an individual’s body, mind and spirit.

Lois Penkos knows that well. The 65-year-old Cedar Rapids woman first started taking yoga several years ago. Then in January 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of giving up her yoga practice, Penkos found she needed it more than ever.

“Here I was turning 60 and suddenly I learned I had breast cancer,” says Penkos. “The yoga class at the Community Cancer Center helped me find myself and showed me a way to move forward.”

Breast cancer survivor Ann Kleman feels the same way. Twelve years after her initial diagnosis, Kleman takes anusara yoga once a week at the Community Cancer Center. She says, “Yoga requires concentration. You learn to focus on it instead of being preoccupied with your disease or your treatment. It’s energizing and relaxing at the same time.”

Instructor Lisa Hanigan says her goal is to help participants become stronger and more flexible, not only in their physical bodies but in the rest of their life as well. She describes yoga as an “innercise,” rather than exercise, and thinks that aspect is especially important to those who have faced cancer. “They’ve learned to look at life in a different way. They’re ready to explore their spiritual side. And by concentrating on yoga, they learn to relax, face their fears and start enjoying every minute.”

Research shows there are health benefits as well. A 2007 study by Duke University showed on the day after breast cancer patients practiced yoga, they experienced significantly lower levels of pain and fatigue and higher levels of relaxation and invigoration. Other studies have suggested the gentle guided movements of yoga can help expand range of motion, improve circulation, lower blood pressure and relax muscle tension—all of which can help speed the recovery process. Exercise, including yoga, also causes the body to release endorphins, which are proven to improve mood.

The Community Cancer Center class is open to all ages and skill levels. Some, like Penkos and Kleman, have been doing yoga for years, while others are new to the practice. But they share a common bond. “In a way, it’s like a support group,” says instructor Hanigan. “Everyone in the room has gone through a cancer experience and that camaraderie is very important to them.”

Penkos agrees. “The friends I made in class played a big part in helping me get through this. I’ve gotten to know some really wonderful people here.”

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