by student Steve M. authored in August 2015
It all started in the summer of 2011 with severe back pain. I had been an active gym goer and was in excellent health so it seemed like a minor back injury. As the pain got worse I was referred to a spine specialist who suspected a disc problem and ordered an MRI. The results were shocking in that a tumor the size of a fingernail was found growing in my spinal cord (at L1) attached to several nerves.
So, the tumor, later biopsied as an unusual Myxopapillary Ependymoma, a low-grade form of cancer — had to come out. In October, I underwent a 5-hour neurosurgery where 99% of the tumor was removed. The surgery required a delicate procedure called a triple laminectomy that refers to the removal of a portion of three vertebral bones to get to and open the spinal cord to remove the tumor. After five days of immobilization where I could not lift my head (to prevent loss of spinal fluid), I recovered sufficiently to sit up in bed for two additional weeks. During that period, it remained unclear if I would walk again.
Fortunately, the nerves sacrificed in the surgery did not deter me from starting the three months of therapy to walk again despite some neurological damage and chronic pain. Six more months of physical therapy and pain management followed but simple tasks like picking something up from the floor felt impossible. The chronic pain persisted.
Two years ago, one of my best friends, a woman six years my senior, then at the age of 76 — said let’s try something very different and maybe counterintuitive as she invited me to her Bikram yoga class in Midtown, where we fortunately met Georgia, who is absolutely amazing. She assured us that we were not “too old” or “too disabled” for yoga and that we were very welcome.
The last two years I have been practicing up to three times a week, with some disruption from travel. Interestingly some of the balancing work is very similar to the physical therapy routine for my spine recovery. Though the spinal series in class was at first unachievable due to pain, I can now work through the pain and find value because these routines later provide symptom relief for a full day or more after class, strongly improving my daily quality of life.
A special thank you to Christine and Jon who have worked with me on several helpful adaptations to protect my back. Being a scientist by profession, I was first hesitant to connect with the emotional side of yoga, but I started listening to Christine about this and now appreciate the positive mental benefits.
Importantly, after two years of mostly hiding in the back of the room and feeling sorry for my disabled self, I am now feeling rather proud of myself as a man in his seventies with a compromised spine who is fighting back against an ambiguous and rare cancer. As a Professor of Medicine, take it from me – friends and yoga can be good medicine.