Yoga For Breast Cancer Patients At Exclusive Yoga
Camille Kittrell’s good friend Jennifer was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer at her first mammogram. Even though the doctors assured her that she would not even have to lose her breast, Kittrell held her friend’s hand through surgery after surgery and watched as Jennifer endured months of pain and slowly lost range of motion in her arms.
“Her pain would worsen and her range of motion would lessen after every surgery,” Kittrell says. “I went through all of that with her. It’s something you can’t really understand until you’ve gone through it with someone.”
Jennifer asked Kittrell to look for fitness and rehabilitation programs outside the hospital for her to join to help her regain the full movement of her arms. “I went online and there aren’t any,” Kittrell says. “To this day, there is no standardized program for breast cancer patients. They have to advocate for themselves if they want physical therapy, even when they can barely pick a bowl up from the counter or put their arm behind their backs to put on a coat.”
So, in 2003, Kittrell decided to fill this gap in Boston’s fitness and yoga community by opening Exclusive Yoga, a small studio in Waltham that welcomes breast cancer patients with open arms.
Exclusive Yoga combines traditional yoga practices—with gentler movements and positions—and relaxing breathing exercises to cater to its special clients.
“We do a lot of gentle motions,” she says. “Gentle over-the-head movements, reach-behind movements, and arm stretches to get that range of motion back.” Kittrell says a typical class involves clients going in and out of easy poses. For example, in a Warrior One position, clients will hold their arms up as far as is comfortable, go in and out of the pose five or eight times, then hold it. This way, clients get their muscles warmed up and their blood flowing, but there is no pain from holding a difficult position for a long time.
Exclusive Yoga’s studio space is also uniquely tailored to Kittrell’s clients. Chemotherapy wipes out patients’ red and white blood cells; without the red blood cells, patients are extremely fatigued and without white blood cells, they are at extreme risk for infection.
As a result, the studio is kept cool—to make sure that clients don’t overheat or become too tired during classes—and meticulously clean to eliminate possible infection.
“I’m also very aware of lymphedema,” Kittrell says. Lymphedema, which is swelling in the arms or legs, can be caused by the removal of lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment and exacerbated by difficult yoga balancing poses, is something that not all yoga instructors know to ask clients about.
“I have women who leave and go to another yoga studio after their treatment is over,” Kittrell says, “and they come back a few weeks later telling me that their lymphedema is back. Most yoga instructors will ask if you have back or neck issues but they don’t think to ask about cancer or lymphedema. They don’t know what they don’t know.”
Exclusive Yoga doesn’t include any arm balancing poses, specifically to avoid the onset or exacerbation of lymphedema.
In addition to regaining physical strength, Kittrell’s program focuses on sustaining mental health.
Kittrell leads guided stillness and breathing exercises with her clients to cultivate peace of mind. She says it’s important to be able to detach from inner conversations and anxieties about your diagnosis and focus on the self.
“I have women who keep coming back to me even after their treatment is over because they feel safe,” she says. “There are other rehab programs at the hospitals but most women don’t want to go back to the hospital or treatment center where they were diagnosed. I have women staying and doing yoga with me for ten years. Here they feel safe. ”
The best part about Exclusive Yoga for Kittrell? Seeing her clients calm and relaxed after a class.
“They look less agitated, less fearful,” she says. “I also love when they run in at the beginning of class and raise their arms and say look how far I can reach now!”
Kittrell’s influence, whether clients stay for a few months or ten years, is certainly significant.
“I run into people who were with me during their treatment all the time,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘You probably don’t remember me because I have my hair back now, but you helped me through the hardest phase in my life.’ That’s a great reward for me.”
The past ten years running Exclusive Yoga have not all been full of happy memories, however. Along with cancer, sometimes comes death.
“It’s not pretty and pink,” Kittrell says. “There’s death involved and some people don’t make it. My friend didn’t. And it’s not over once the treatment is over. It might hurt to turn the steering wheel for years afterward.”
Despite these sad realities, Kittrell says that running Exclusive is still gratifying. It’s taught her to appreciate what most people take for granted, and to see what really matters in her life.
“I’ve come away from this with a much greater appreciation for life,” she says. “And for my life in particular. I always used to stop and smell the flowers, but now I really linger and smell them for a long time.”
Exclusive Yoga, 276 Florence Road, Waltham. 781-647-7334