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How Pilates Helped Me Through My Breast Cancer Journey

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By: Mandy Waddell

Joseph Pilates said “Contrology (pilates) is the complete coordination of mind, body and spirit”. That IS what pilates is but I think it goes beyond the exercises you do in a pilates studio. I attribute my pilates practice and the support from my pilates community for helping me stay strong and positive in my mind, body and spirit during my breast cancer journey.

I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in June 2021. For a few months, I had a dull pain in my left breast that wasn’t going away. I went for my first mammogram thinking it was going to be a cyst because they run in my family. However, I was thrown for a loop when my pathology report came back showing there were 2 small cancer tumors. Knowing I needed to take time off from teaching my pilates classes to have a lumpectomy and recover, I shared my breast cancer diagnosis with my co-workers and clients. Most of the women I have known for years and see them every week so it only felt natural to share with them what I was going through. In being open with clients and fellow instructors, I was able to get a lot of good information about breast cancer, doctors, nutrition and the emotional support I needed.

After I had my lumpectomy, I found out my margins were not clear and I would benefit from having a mastectomy and chemo. When I came into the studio with my short hair cut and then no hair during my chemo cycles, the women in the studio treated me like normal. They told me I looked good…even on the days I know I didn’t. They gave me grace when I needed to modify the way I did my mat exercises and were understanding when I had to sit while I taught the equipment classes after my chemo sessions. I also received grace when some clients prayed over me after class a few times. It was a beautiful act of love and kindness that deeply touched my heart. The encouragement, prayers and the meal train that was set up for my family fed our bellies and my soul. Knowing my family would be eating healthy meals (and eating dinners better than mine) allowed my husband and mom the time to take care of me and not have to worry about what to feed the kids. And I could focus on the healing and recovery process.

All the years I have been doing pilates, teaching a weekly mat class and the continuing education classes have helped my body through chemo and recover from a double mastectomy and DIEP Flap breast reconstruction. The days I was feeling weak from chemo, doing feet in straps exercises or a gentle 5 minute reformer workout helped me feel better. Using the breathing techniques taught in our Stott Pilates Basic Principles helped calm my nerves before chemo sessions, surgeries, getting my drains cleaned and clearing my lymphatic system. Having good body awareness came in handy when I knew I needed to use my glutes and quad muscles to stand up when it hurt too much to use my arms and core muscles. One of our instructor’s foot workshop came into good use when I needed to use my toes to pick my clothes up off the floor without bending over. As well as a shoulder workshop which reminded me I could use a tennis ball on my back and shoulders to help loosen my tight muscles. Some of the arm exercises we do in pilates are allowing me to regain the range of motion in my tight shoulders and chest. I can’t do core work yet, but I can do footwork and other exercises on the reformer to help me gain strength, stretch, improve my posture and get rid of the fatigue I’m having.

It is a humbling experience to have practiced pilates for over 10 years and then to have to start at square one again. However, learning to modify my exercises is giving me a personal experience that I will be able to pass onto clients who are experiencing similar issues. By helping clients coordinate their mind, body and spirit during class exercises, I also hope to touch their mind, body and spirit outside of the studio as they did for me.

Age Gracefully, Move Powerfully.

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