Advanced Colorectal Survivor

Yoga provides a path of recovery and a second career after treatment

Jean DiCarlo-Wagner faced Stage IIIC colon cancer in 2003, with her doctors giving her a 50/50 chance for five-year survival. Fortunately, her surgery and chemotherapy were successful, but her journey from diagnosis to recovery was challenging. After a 20-year career as an education resource specialist, her diagnosis and poor prognosis forced her to retire. However, she found a new career in teaching yoga for cancer survivors. Jean and her husband, Chris, have one grown daughter and are active Airbnb.com hosts. They keep busy with an art studio built on their property and rescuing golden retrievers.

 

I believe that wellness can be in each moment, no matter what state we’re in physically. Every moment is truly a gift if you allow it to be. These are some of the benefits I discovered from having cancer.

I was diagnosed with Stage IIIC colon cancer in March 2003, the week I turned 47. I have always had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and both of my older sisters have Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. However, because IBS is not directly related to colon cancer, my symptoms of bloating, constipation, diarrhea and fatigue did not raise a red flag in my mind.

When I began sleeping 10 hours at night and taking a daily four-hour nap, I went to my doctor and was misdiagnosed with depression. However, I still tried to stay active with yoga, low-impact aerobics and lifting weights.

I returned to the doctor when I couldn’t eat anything and suddenly lost 15 pounds. At this point, my doctor ordered a colonoscopy. As I waited three weeks for the procedure, I began noticing blood in my stool.

Coincidentally, I heard Katie Couric on the radio talking about colon cancer, and suddenly I knew what was wrong with me. It turned out I was correct, and I was scared to death. After my diagnosis, I subsequently had surgery to remove 12 inches of my colon and two positive lymph nodes.

After my surgery, I began a chemotherapy regimen that included 26 weekly rounds of fluorouracil (5-FU) and leucovorin. My side effects were severe and persistent, including constant nausea and vomiting and more weight loss. My muscles were weak and my mind was confused. Halfway through, my doctor gave me a two-week chemotherapy break, which I really needed.

During my treatment I did little except sleep, pray, meditate and invite friends over to visit. I read self-help books and embraced the idea of laughter. I was very fortunate to have my friends and family come from across the country to care for me as well as my husband and teenage daughter.

It wasn’t until the end of six very tough months of treatment that my numbers finally began to change. We were all thrilled and relieved, including my oncologist. My treatment was complete and I was without evidence of disease, but the next period was also difficult. I had retired from teaching and was still young. What was I going to do now?

I first wanted to return to my physical activities, but I was foggy in my thinking and uncoordinated in my movements, and I had what’s described as “chemo brain.” After false starts with weightlifting and stretch classes, I tried my normal yoga class. Ten minutes in, I had to go lie down in the corner. I think I cried.

I started doing the beginning of a yoga tape at home over and over as I gained back my strength and confidence. Over the next year, I worked up to returning to class and modifying as necessary. I learned that when I couldn’t “do,” God was pleased with me just “being.” As this continued, I realized I had a love for the entirety of what was yoga: the physical, spiritual and emotional aspects. Yoga provided me a way back to health, so I wanted to offer other survivors what I had needed to help me find my “new normal.”

I also knew that I was not alone in my need for a gentle class after undergoing cancer treatment, so I embarked on becoming a certified yoga instructor. I began teaching a cancer survivor class. That was the beginning of teaching weekly classes, writing online meditations and creating both my (free) “Yoga for Cancer Survivors” audio class and an online class to train yoga teachers in this specialized area.

After more than 10 years, I remain without evidence of disease. Wellness for others and myself has become my passion, and working with cancer survivors still brings me great joy. It reminds me to stay grateful and keeps me focused on what is truly important.

 

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