Cancer Is Costly—Wellness Will Be Free

By Sheena Goss

Amy Conn’s yoga class helps cancer patients heal.
by Sheena Goss
Before November 2006, Julia Kuznetsov hardly practiced yoga. But after a breast cancer diagnosis, a close friend encouraged her to attend Quality of Life, a 60-minute yoga class for people whose lives have been touched by cancer. Held at a downtown yoga studio, the class invites cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and loved ones to attend free of charge.

After her diagnosis, Kuznetsov faced physical and emotional challenges. The range of motion in her shoulder was limited as a result of an operation. Emotionally, she was unsteady.

"I could not talk to people about my disease without crying. In fact, I didn’t tell many people about my cancer at all. But when I walked in_to class for the first time I felt so calm and warm, so much positive energy in the air. It’s hard to describe," says Kuznetsov.

Amy Conn understands Kuznet_sov’s experience. Every Thursday at 7:15 p.m., she’s teaching Quality of Life at Kula Community Yoga Center. After successful completion of her breast cancer treatment, Conn began this weekly yoga class to honor the mind-body connection crucial to the healing process. Because Conn knows how quickly medical bills can add up, she does not charge her students for attending. "Cancer is costly," says Conn. "Wellness will be free."

Starting the class

After her diagnosis, Conn continued taking classes-all through her chemotherapy and even when her white blood cell count was zero. During treatment, the yoga studio was the one place Conn felt normal. "I could still practice, and see my_self reflected strongly in the other students’ eyes." Six months later, Conn’s treatment concluded and she went into remission. But she wanted to maintain the environment she and her bandana buddies-other yoga practitioners undergoing chemotherapy- had cultivated. She began teaching Quality of Life at a yoga studio in Salt Lake City.

During that time, she met Adam Ballenger, a yoga practitioner battling a brain infection who had undergone a series of operations.

"Amy and I connected on that level," says Ballenger. "We both had a survivor story and quickly became friends." Ballenger eventually opened his own yoga studio, Kula Community Yoga Center at 823 East 400 South in Salt Lake City. At the studio’s one-year anniversary, he invited Conn to teach Quality of Life there.

According to Conn, Kula’s philosophy is in direct alignment with the purpose of the class. Kula is the first completely green yoga studio in Salt Lake City, and possibly in Utah. Ballenger has a strong commitment to positively impacting the environment and the community. And based on his personal survivor exper_ience, Conn felt he understood the intention behind Quality of Life.

A collective experience

Conn begins each class by encouraging her students to share their cancer experience. They discuss diagnoses, treatments, emotions, and the impact the experience has on their families. "In a way," says Kuznetsov, "it’s like a support group, only better, since we also get to do yoga."

After introductions, Conn determines the types of asanas (yoga postures) and breathing exercises that will be most beneficial for the class. If a student has breast cancer, Conn demonstrates stretches that target muscles in the chest. "We do a lot of chest-openers," says Conn of the postures. "The heart is guarded when your body is attacked. Often times the shoulders curl in." Conn centers each class on the heart, "letting life, collective love, and collective energy engage in a person’s healing process." Communal efforts have a significant impact on the students. Kuznetsov remembers, "Some of us were very weak and sick from our chemotherapy. But we were doing [the exercises], impressed and inspired by each other’s strength."

Benefits of yoga

Fear can be a chronic emotion for those dealing with cancer: fear of the treatment process, the outcome, and even recurrence. Practicing yoga in a setting like Quality of Life, says Conn, brings a student face to face with that fear and gives them tools to move past it.

Through breathing exercises, students increase the oxygen in their systems. According to Conn, this helps inhibit cancer cell growth. And focusing on breathing calms students, which in turn facilitates the healing process.

Kuznetsov experienced first-hand the benefits of practicing yoga. After weekly attendance,  the range of motion in her shoulder was restored to 100%. "My surgeon could not believe it. Quality of Life has helped me a lot, both physically and emotionally."

Larger than the illness

For Conn and her students, a cancer diagnosis was the catalyst for attending Quality of Life, but their shared experience is larger than cancer. From biochemist to accountant to massage therapist, students come from all walks of life. Conn, in her day job, is a fourth-grade teacher. "We’re all so different. If not for the class, we wouldn’t know each other."

Some months ago, another yoga instructor encouraged Conn to journal her experience with cancer and Quality of Life. Conn’s assignment was to write at least 12 pages. Initially reluctant, Conn saw that the 12 pages easily turned into 400. Now she’s working with an editor to publish a book on her experience. The book, like her class, identifies another way of healing.

She chronicles her decision to take control of her hair loss by hosting a head-shaving party. She examines the challenges of explaining cancer and chemotherapy to her two young children. Drawing on her experience as a hospice worker, she reflects on how individuals cope with their own healing process. And throughout, she explains how yoga, meditation and a positive attitude helped make sense of it all.

Conn’s perspective is that a cancer diagnosis is not the end. "You need to take the film off, make the issue more clear, and identify a new perspective. It’s about living life-finding things that are truly important."

Sheena Goss is a writer and former Salt Laker now  living in San Francisco.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2008.