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Natural Awakenings Tampa Florida

Yoga and Healing: A Cancer Survivor's Continuing Journey

Dec 01, 2012 04:54PM ● By Richard Spearance

I could tell from the expression on my wife’s face that she knew before I even told her: my tests had come back positive for thyroid cancer. My best efforts to remain stoic melted before her eyes as we held each other and wept. How could this have happened to a marathon-running yoga teacher who was in the middle of training for his first triathlon?

The crazy part was that nobody was even looking for cancer. I didn’t have any symptoms. The X-ray was taken two years earlier because of some shoulder pain from a minor cervical disc problem. Along with the report of the injured disc, the radiologist identified a tiny spot on my thyroid in his report. The doctor said it was probably nothing, but that I should have it checked out sometime in the future.

We were living in New Jersey at the time and I had just taken a job in Saint Petersburg, Florida. We were up to our ears in being busy: a major move, a new job, a new home, a new city. Needless to say, a tiny spot on a piece of film took a back burner to all the hustle and bustle taking place in my life. Little did I know that the tiny spot on that X-ray would become a life-changing event two years later, followed by a journey of healing and self-discovery that continues today.

Sitting with my wife Kathleen a few days ago, I recounted what I considered to be the truly life-altering experiences in my life: marriage (37 years and going strong!), the births of two terrific children, a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree, losing my mother to cancer, and a personal/professional meltdown many years ago that had the unexpectedly positive effect of leading me to a profound relationship with the healing power of yoga.

I believe that all of these events, both joyous and tragic, made me stronger and helped me understand how to be a better person. But I have to be honest: the reality of finding out that I had a potentially life-threatening cancer shook everything right down to my core. All of my beliefs, hopes and dreams had suddenly been reset to zero. What was I going to do? How was I going to live my life, wondering just how much of it I had left? What about the horror of what I had seen of my mother’s suffering and her untimely death? How would my family get by without me? I just couldn’t find any answers, and dwelling on the questions was starting to make me crazy. It felt like I was headed for another meltdown.

My surgeon was as kind as a person can be, but she could only offer cold comfort: "We need to remove the cancer we can see, and hope it hasn’t spread to other parts of the body." Two surgeries later, I was minus my thyroid and parathyroid glands, but was also pronounced cancer-free. So it became a waiting game, being checked "nose to toes" periodically to make sure that cancer wasn’t popping up somewhere else in my body. Meanwhile, I had the "joy" of learning what life was like without a thyroid gland.

Imagine the most complicated computer in the world trying to operate without a central processor. That image offers a tiny glimpse of how the human body, the most complex "machine" in the world, tries to operate without a thyroid gland—the command center for all of the other glands in the body. My body didn’t have a clue what to do and, frankly, neither did my endocrinologist. All he could do was make educated guesses, tweak my system with artificial hormones, and then wait to see whether there was improvement. It felt like a game of "pin the tail on the donkey", except that I was the donkey! Oh, and I had to wait a month or two between "pins" to see if the doctor had guessed correctly! So there I was, Mister Marathon Runner, Mister Yogi, barely making it through the work day and then just collapsing afterward. My metabolism was so sluggish that I felt like a sloth on Thorazine! That roller coaster ride lasted the best part of a year, during which I went from 145 pounds to 185 pounds—a 28 percent increase in weight!

I admit that I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. My typical routine prior to surgery included yoga and several miles of running almost every day after work. I felt guilty and ashamed of myself for not being able to work out, and embarrassed at the weight I had gained. There were times when I was wondering if I could continue to live this way. It just seemed that there was no end in sight.

Finally, the hormones started to balance out, giving me enough energy to return to my yoga, if not my running. During this time my ankle had become damaged (most likely due to the weight gain) and I was told that I could no longer run. But I had my yoga practice back, and I had been cancer-free for over a year! Once again I started to feel hopeful. It was time to make the changes I had always wanted to make in my life. I had a keen appreciation for the brevity of this mortal life, and I was determined to make the most of each moment.

Things came to a head fairly quickly at work. As a quality director for a pharmaceutical facility, my decisions regarding potentially serious consumer health issues seemed to consistently run afoul of operations management. I was regarded as an impediment to progress rather than as a watchdog whose job it was to protect both the company and its customers. Finally we parted company, and it turned out to be the best move I ever made. I was now free to pursue my lifelong goal of building and opening my own studio, and teaching yoga full-time!

Fast-forward to the present: My studio, Tree Frog Yoga, is now open in Pinellas Park. I have a small but loyal following, and am devoting myself to the success of this new venture. My re-commitment to yoga has invigorated my metabolism and my spirit, giving me the energy to work more hours every day than I ever worked in the corporate world. Funny thing is, even if I feel tired at the end of the day, I am filled with joy because I am living my dream! There is nothing more satisfying to me than the soft smile on the faces of my students at the end of a yoga class. I feel richly blessed! I am happy to live each day for its full value, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but striving to be aware and fully alive in each present moment. Blessings to each of you, and best wishes for peace, happiness and loving-kindness on your own journey!


Richard Spearance, owner of Tree Frog Yoga, has been practicing yoga for 15+ years and teaching since 2004. He is ERYT200 certified by Yoga Alliance and Kripalu Institute and will complete his 500-hour certification in 2013. Tree Frog Yoga is located at 7725 70th Avenue, Pinellas Park, or 727-575-9302. See ad page 43.