In the past few years, Fern Nibauer-Cohen, marketing specialist and yoga enthusiast, has gone through some changes.
Twelve years ago, she went through a difficult divorce and became devoted to the practice of yoga. Five years ago, she moved from Fox-Chase Cancer Center, where she worked for 18 years, to HUP, where she works now.
As she walked the halls of HUP during the course of her daily marketing responsibilities, she noticed something distinct about the atmosphere of the place. It was an atmosphere of healing, and that appealed to her. She wanted to be a part of it—the cancer treatment process, the comprehensive care into survivorship, the making whole of shattered patients fighting for a second chance.
She found a way to do it when she took a yoga teacher certification class. Her instructor was an oncology nurse. She made the connection between cancer treatment and yoga therapy seem evident to Fern. “When we come to teach yoga in a therapeutic setting, it comes from an aspect of being a wounded healer. Something traumatic happened in our lives that made us turn to it,” Fern told me.
Fern had turned to yoga in order to assemble her splintering mind after the divorce. She thought that she could do something to help people diagnosed with cancer, who go through comparable periods of shock.
“When people are first diagnosed, their minds start going in a million different directions. There’s a huge shift, like the rug was pulled right out from under them,” she said.
Yoga, which encourages practiced attention to single thoughts and feelings, is a good step for that tumultuous stage of treatment. Patients often find that it helps to slow down. It helps to focus. It helps to direct mental energy inward, toward the source of the problem and the will for a solution.
Cancer takes time to get rid of. A patient who is unprepared to be consistent with the grueling treatments is less well-equipped than one who can remain mindful of the treatment objectives and go to the hospital whenever they need to. “Sometimes when you’re being treated for cancer you have to come in every day for months,” Fern told me. “Yoga is very much a practice that helps you keep those things in balance. It has a lot of ‘off-mat’ benefits.”
When you have cancer, however, yoga doesn’t always take place on a mat.
Fern told me about one patient she had who was bed-bound after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. She had oral cancer and had lost the ability to speak. Fern would go to her room and sit beside her. Their sessions consisted of breathing, visualization, and simple movements of the hands and feet. Small, meditative practices like that are sometimes all it takes for the wounded to make steps toward wholeness. “A really good yoga teacher meets the student where they are,” remarked Fern.
Fern is moderately irked by the way most people think of yoga (in a gym, in a large group, while doing acrobatic poses.) She doesn’t think of herself as a personal trainer to cancer patients. In fact, she doesn’t even think yoga belongs in the same category as physical exercise. In her ideal world, everyone would recognize that yoga’s benefits reach more deeply into a person who chooses to practice it. They balance what has been weighing heavily on the soul. By setting right what is askew inside the practitioner, Fern says that yoga “helps to support the present day.”
For cancer patients, the present day needs all the support it can get.