Pilates for breast cancer

Two years ago when her daughter stopped gaining weight despite being breastfed regularly, Rachel Budlanski never thought it had something to do with breast cancer.

The then-29-year-old mother of two who lives in Toronto, ON took her daughter to a variety of pediatricians and nursing specialists, who assured her the baby was fine despite the weight loss and bloody stools. What doctors failed to notice were the changes in Budlanski’s breasts.

“I kept having to buy new bras because the old ones got too tight,” Budlanski said. “And my right breast, which I was feeding from exclusively, was inflamed.”

After speaking to her doula, who advised her to consult her doctor immediately, Budlanski was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to go undiagnosed due to a lack of symptoms in patients. Budlanski had both breasts removed in a double mastectomy in order to prevent a reoccurrence of the disease.

“My initial reaction was shock and terror,” she said. “I felt like at some point they were going to call me back and tell me that they had made a terrible mistake.”

After surgery, most breast cancer patients are offered physiotherapy as part of their rehabilitation process. Budlanski, however, took a different route – she decided to try Pilates.

Nikki Bergen, Pilates instructor and owner of Grace Corps Studio in Toronto, ON, had been working with Budlanski’s brother and sister-in-law and was recommended to help with Budlanski’s rehabilitation. Like most breast cancer patients, Budlanski found it difficult to complete everyday tasks and didn’t believe she had the energy to take on any type of exercise, so she was hesitant to try Pilates. She also feared the vigorous exercise it might worsen her situation.

But after a couple of classes, she noticed her pain had lessened and she had more energy. “Beyond it helping me physically, it also helps me feel normal and gives me a sense of achievement,” Budlanski said.

After hearing Budlanski’s story, Bergen thought about other breast cancer survivors who might benefit from Pilates as an alternative to physiotherapy. With Budlanski as her inspiration, she created the Pink Method, a rehabilitative Pilates class geared specifically toward breast cancer patients.

“Not a lot of women have the resources for a private physiotherapist if it’s not covered under their insurance,” Bergen said. “They have no one to come in and monitor them and work with them to rehabilitate.”

The biggest issue Bergen had with the lack of available support was the host of women who were experiencing challenges in their lives with simple tasks such as washing their hair and holding their children. She immediately got certification as a breast cancer Pilates instructor through the Pink Ribbon Program and set up her first workshop, which took place in May 2011. She also teamed up with burlesque dance instructor Kaitlyn Regehr to create a class that was both beneficial and fun for participants.

“Primarily the focus is on restorative and rehabilitative exercise,” she said. “Women who have had breast surgery often have complications with lymphedema and have (lost) muscle tissue.”

Bergen says the process of exercising can be challenging for survivors since their instincts teach them to “curl up and hunch their shoulders.” She believes her class works for a few reasons.

“It’s a lot of camaraderie,” she said. “You have women in the room who have all experienced something similar and even if everything about them is different, they can all find common ground.”

In addition to creating a friendly environment, Bergen tries to make her class productive by teaching women to use the tools given to them by their physiotherapists.

“Nine times out of 10, the women have (their flex band) at home but it’s in a closet somewhere,” Bergen said. “We teach them how to use it productively … and in a way that they’re able to do it at home.”

Sat Dharam Kaur, a naturopathic doctor at Trillium Healing Arts Centre in Owen Sound, ON, says Pilates and yoga are a great rehabilitative alternative for women who have had breast surgery. The movements involved with these practices help improve circulation, mobilize the arms and lower the risks of lymphedema.

However, despite the usefulness of these alternatives, Kaur says doctors who recommend these options are in the minority.

“The occasional doctor might offer it to women and there’s a growing amount of research in medical journals on the benefits of (these options),” she said. “It’s been proven that yoga can benefit people going through treatment for cancer.”

Kaur says that the reasons that yoga can be so beneficial go beyond the physical.

“Women who have gone through breast cancer surgeries need to reclaim their bodies in some way and make their bodies their home,” she said. “Yoga and Pilates can be very helpful in creating a loving, caring and sensitive way into awareness in loving the body again and learning to trust it (again).”

While the programs can be useful, survivors may not always feel up to the task. Budlanski admits to sometimes feeling uninterested in taking on the challenge.

“The last time Nikki was here, I felt like turning her away,” Budlanski said. “I felt nauseous and extremely tired, (but) I pushed through and halfway through the class I felt so much better.”

Bergen’s main goal with the Pink Method is to make the information women are given by their doctors easy to incorporate into their lives in a fun and supportive way.

“A lot of people dread (physiotherapy),” she said. “Often times it’s painful, so it’s good to do this in a supportive environment with other people who understand what you’ve gone through.”

Bergen’s next Pink Method Workshop will be held on Jan. 22 at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto.

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