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Finding peace within

Fighting the physical ravages of cancer is a must, but sometimes it’s just as important to treat the spirit

March 18, 2009
By EMILY HUNKLER, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - Take a deep breath. Feel your lungs inflate and fill your rib cage. Feel the air in your stomach. Feel how it makes your chest feel and the pressure it's putting on your organs. Really feel it.

Now exhale. Feel all the toxic, negative impressions of the day exit your body through that breath. Feel the pressure on your lungs and stomach release. Take notice of how releasing the breath also releases the weight it had on your body only moments before.

Do it again.

Article Photos

Joe Mercurio, pictured in the forefront, has faced and defeated three different types of cancer since 1985 and attributes some of that success to yoga.
Enterprise photo — Emily Hunkler)

Focus on those breaths, close your eyes and think of how that air feels entering the body and what it means to leave the body.

Breathing practices like these are the basis of yoga, meditation and guided imagery therapy and are meant to help the practitioner take their minds off all the negativity in their life and focus only on the breath, allowing the body and mind to release tension.

"The only place to find peace is to go within," said Mary Bartel, the owner and director of Inner Quest Yoga and Wellness Center in Saranac Lake and instructor of the gentle restorative yoga class. She is registered and trained as a structural yoga therapist to work with individuals with chronic conditions or pain management. Along with Diane Bryjak, a counseling psychologist, she runs the Strength for Healing program that is funded through a $13,100 grant from the Adirondack Medical Center Foundation.

The classes are offered to oncology patients at Adirondack Medical Center, at no charge to them or their family or caregivers, as a way to help cancer patients treat their minds and spirits while chemotherapy and radiation treatments wreak havoc on the rest of their body as a means to kill the cancer that is plaguing them.

"People think that by taking care of the mouth sores and the nausea and treating all the symptoms and side-effects of chemo, that they are taking care of themselves," said Gina DuMont, a certified oncology nurse at AMC, who worked with Bartel to get the program running. "But you're really not taking care of yourself, you're just patching yourself up."

Treatment experience

Bartel approached DuMont about the idea after being a witness to both her parents, sister and her husband suffering from cancer. Her husband survived throat cancer and her sister is a two-time breast cancer survivor, her parents both died from lung cancer.

"I felt that there was this horrible storm around me, but I was able to witness it, be less reactive and in control and to not let it sweep me away," Bartel said of how her meditation and yoga practices helped her deal with the stress cancer had put on her life.

DuMont agreed with Bartel that while as a nurse she tries to connect with patients and see how they are handling their struggle with cancer, patients are not usually apt to share their fears and stresses.

"They kind of just go on autopilot and don't stop to think about why they aren't sleeping well or other stress-related problems," DuMont said. "People come in here and they are anxious and overwhelmed by their diagnosis and all we can do is give them their treatment, tell them the side-effects and send them home."

DuMont pointed out that often after a person's out-patient cancer treatment is completed the feelings of stress and its side-effects really start to set in.

"You would think that everybody would celebrate once their treatment is over," she said. "But fairly often they have a feeling of, 'Well, what do I do next?' 'What if it comes back?' And as nurses we aren't around to witness that. But I think the yoga and guided imagery therapy really address those fears and challenges."

And Bartel does her best to encourage her students to acknowledge the stressful side of things, but to then banish it.

"Peace is part of our innate nature," Bartel said during a recent yoga session. "But our circumstances make us a little bit crazy sometimes, doesn't it? And fearful. But the best thing we can do is be peaceful and make ourselves better, that is the purpose of yoga."

Treating the mind,

body and spirit

"When people are sick, there is a tendency to be consumed by that worry and, of course, that causes more muscle tension and more focus on the problem," Bryjak said. "With guided imagery we are replacing that tension and the worry with images that are soothing and powerful and healing. Addressing people's stress levels really makes a difference in whether people win or lose the battle with cancer."

The guided imagery therapy group meets once a month and Bryjak said she gives each group a focus, but it is dependant on each person how they interpret it.

"I may ask them to imagine a great white light descending down over them and to imagine the energy of that light and imagine that light covering your skin and absorbing into your body and touching every part of you from the bone marrow on out," Bryjak explained. "Now someone might imagine that light as it courses through the body as a sleek cat going through the blood system and clawing out the cancer cells. People come up with amazing imagery."

Although her therapy may sound a bit new-age to some of the older or less adventurous patients, Bryjak said guided imagery is nothing new.

"Imagery has been used in healing since the beginning of humankind," Bryjak said. "Way before we had medical treatment there were shaman and, you know, moms. Mothers would tell their children stories to enhance their thinking and just change their state of mind to forget about their sickness or pain."

As for the restorative yoga sessions, the purpose is not much different.

"When a negative thought or emotion arises, take it in, acknowledge it and then send it back," Bartel said as her students sat, cross-legged on their blue and purple yoga mats, hands opened to the ceiling resting atop their knees.

However, the session was not all serious, deep relaxation techniques. When some moves required balance and concentration, the aspiring yogis found it difficult not to laugh.

"Doesn't this feel freeing?" Bartel asked as she encouraged the class to channel their inner tree by standing on one foot with their hands meeting prayer-style in front of their chests.

"Not really," said Virginia Strasser as she dropped her foot to the ground, preferring to sway her hips on two feet than fall on her face on the one.

Even if the classes don't help increase flexibility or balance, they do seem to be helping the survivors deal with the worries, fears and stresses that remain despite the absence of the malignant cells that caused them.

The session ended with a short discussion of how the five classmates had found ways through meditation and therapy to deal with the negativity they face on a daily basis.

"I find that if I am able to concentrate on what is and not what if, I can really relax," said Melissa Godin. "I am able to focus on what is good and actually really happening that moment. It doesn't eliminate planning for the future, but it eliminates the fear I feel for what could happen in the future."

'Plus, it does work'

One might think that a person who has faced and defeated three different types of cancer on four separate, unrelated occasions may not need help facing the aftermath. But for Saranac Laker Joe Mercurio, 70, the weekly yoga classes have helped him immensely.Mercurio was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 1985, and he beat it only to face a recurrence 14 years later. But he beat it again. Then, in 2003, Mercurio was told he had prostate cancer. He had surgery; however, unlike his first two experiences with colon cancer, surgery was not enough. Mercurio underwent radiation to finish it off. And then in 2005, Mercurio was told he had kidney cancer. This time it was more serious - stage four - and it had invaded his lymph nodes. So far in this battle, Mercurio has lost a kidney, gone through chemotherapy and faces regular screenings to see if the cancer returns.

"I've had two CAT-scans and so far, both have been clear," Mercurio said. "I still walk 18 holes of golf in the summer. I'm on the national ski patrol. Physically, I'm doing pretty darn well - mentally, too. Attitude is everything with this disease."

When he lived in Saratoga, Mercurio practiced yoga five times a week, but, since retiring, he had left the habit behind. Until he saw this opportunity.

"It helps to get you in a relaxed mode, a serene mode," Mercurio said. "To be stress free is equivalent to healing. It helps you focus on the positive, dismiss the negative and keep the frame of mind that my body is well, my body is happy and my body is healing. I use that as my mantra."

Mercurio encouraged skeptical cancer survivors and fighters to try it, despite the new-age, more Eastern philosophy than Western feel to it.

"You should at least explore it and give it a try," he said. "It can be very beneficial to you, and when you're going through cancer, you want to do what benefits yourself. Plus, it does work."

Contact Emily Hunkler at 891-2600 ext. 24 or



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