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The Cancer Gender Gap

Men, let's talk about cancer

Statistics suggests a worrying trend in cancer prevalence and mortality rates – cancer is more likely to affect men than women.

According to a 2009 report, men are sixteen percent more likely to get cancer than women, and forty percent more likely to die from the disease. When researchers adjusted the data to examine only cancers that affected both men and women, the difference became even more alarming. Men were sixty percent more likely to get cancer than women, and seventy percent more likely to die from it.

Why is Cancer More Common In Men?

The reasons for these disparities are not fully understood, but experts have offered several potential explanations. Firstly, male lifestyle factors may account for some of the differences. For example, men are far more likely to smoke than women. Globally, it is estimated that forty percent of men smoke, in comparison with less than nine percent of women. However, the gender differences on other lifestyle factors are less clear-cut. For instance, a 2016 study found that the male-female gap in alcohol use is closing. Clearly, lifestyle factors are not the only factor at play.

Toxic masculinity may also play a role. From a young age, boys are taught it’s not okay to express their feelings; “boys don’t cry.” We tell young men to “man up,” to not show weakness. To “be a man” means to be strong, brave, and self-reliant. Unfortunately, these gender stereotypes and norms may deter men from seeking help for health problems.

Furthermore, women typically have more frequent contact with health professionals (for example, during pregnancy). As a result, women have more opportunities to discuss worrying symptoms, as well as for education on signs, symptoms, and prevention of cancer.

Finally, research suggests genetic differences between males and females may also be a contributory factor. According to a 2016 report from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, females carry an extra copy of certain protective genes in their cells. This genetic difference may also explain why men and women respond differently to treatment.

Improving the Prognosis for Men with Cancer

Today, it is estimated that half of men will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes. Although recent research suggests that the cancer gender gap is narrowing, the fact remains early detection of cancer can save lives.

If we want to help more men beat cancer, we must ensure that healthcare services are accessible, affordable, and appropriate. We need not only more research, education, and awareness, but also a shift in attitudes: men must perceive self-advocacy and help-seeking not as signs of weakness, but as signs of strength.

 


yoga 4 cancer helps cancer patients and survivors manage treatment side effects and sustain cancer recovery.

“I feel that I have a strong tool in my bag of teaching experience to use for cancer survivors. This is something that will come up in my community and something I can offer to family members or friends. This training gave me skills and confidence to approach cancer survivors and offer help.”

— Charles, y4c training graduate

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Jennifer Fremion: Healing the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Jennifer Fremion OriginaljpgThis is an interview with Jennifer Fremion, who works as a chemotherapy infusion nurse as well as a certified yoga teacher in yoga for cancer, Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, and Yoga Psychology. She and Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology have developed the first medically supported yoga for cancer program in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area that offers free classes to all cancer patients and survivors.

Says Jennifer so powerfully: “Cancer doesn’t only take over the body. Trauma resides in the body and mind of a person with cancer. Therefore, yoga is an integral component of the treatment of cancer because it addresses not just the physical body, but also the emotional and mental bodies, as well as the spiritual health of the individual.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Our patients are what motivate me. As a chemotherapy nurse I get to know them throughout the course of their treatment. They are the strongest people I know. I see their fear and sadness, and I also see their hope and joy for life. It helps to keep me present within the moments of my own life. Throughout my work as a nurse, I’ve seen how the practice of yoga fits so beautifully as a complementary part of medical treatment. Where medicine falls short, yoga offers support. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it seems to be the missing piece of the big picture of cancer treatment.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I’m most rewarded by being told by those who attend yoga for cancer classes how much they love the classes, and that they feel so good afterward. I recently had a student stay after class. She was new to the class and newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She began to cry as she introduced herself to the class and shared her fears of her diagnosis. The entire group supported her in sharing their own stories and extending an offering of hope. After class this student thanked me and said, “I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life, but now that I’ve got cancer it’s become even worse. This class helped me with that and immediately gave me relief.”

We share our stories, we laugh and we cry in these classes. They go far beyond physical exercise; yoga taps into something so much deeper than that. These teachings work to the deepest level of our human capacity, beyond the traditional treatment regimen and protocol. This is where deep healing occurs.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They teach me by just being and showing up. These students represent the epitome of strength and courage. They show up in their own lives fully every day. Whether they are nauseated, fatigued, depressed or scared, they show up. They give insight into what it is to live with cancer and to go through treatment. Quite a few of the students in the yoga for cancer classes have stage 4 cancers, and know that there isn’t a “cure” for their disease. And yet they live each moment of their lives to the fullest, because their diagnosis gives them the understanding that there is an end to life. I learn that we don’t know how long we have in this life, and so to make the most of each moment.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from cancer?

Yoga is an inclusive practice. Our yoga for cancer classes are free and open to all students who are going through cancer treatment or are beyond treatment. Societal factors such as economic status, religion, ethnicity, physical status and education don’t prevent students from experiencing the benefits of practicing yoga. We live, breathe and practice as a collective. We celebrate each other and our unique life’s journey and it is each student’s cancer journey that has brought us all together in the first place. Yoga addresses societal factors by bridging diversity and extending acceptance. Creating union, which is the definition of yoga; union within our own body and mind and in community with each other.

In working with cancer patients, what changes have you noticed in yourself, your thinking or feeling about cancer?

Cancer has become a part of all of our lives. It is something that will touch us all whether it is a friend, family member, or our own personal cancer journey. Working with people going through cancer treatment and cancer recovery, I’ve learned the importance of pausing in life to breathe, even if it is just for a short moment. This offers a sense of peace no matter what it is we are facing. Yoga gives us this very tool, one that teaches us that we can truly be well even in the midst of disease or chaos. My teacher Tari Prinster says it best, “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.”

I am so grateful to be working alongside oncologists who understand the immense healing capacity of yoga and cancer. Through our program we are not just focusing on the illness itself. We are able to move beyond that and focus on the overall wellness of each patient and survivor. We can create the space and understanding that we can be well no matter what stage or progression of the disease we face. The practice of yoga teaches us this.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope for the future of yoga for cancer is that the yoga and medical fields can increasingly work together to offer tools to our patients to live life better both during and beyond traditional treatment. I hope yoga will be used more and more as a therapeutically-oriented practice to offer great relief beyond the physical realm. Yoga can fully support our patients’ needs, body, mind, and spirit.

Cited Resources

(1) Yoga For Cancer: A Gude to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors, Healing Arts Press, 2014, p. 278.

(2) Yoga For Cancer, Tari Prinster p. 277.

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Tari Prinster: Cultivating Hope, Strength and Community For Those Touched By Cancer

Tari Prinster is a cancer survivor and yoga teacher since 2003. She is also the founder and director of our yoga4cancer program; and the founder of a nonprofit, The Retreat Project, that helps to bring specialized yoga classes and retreats to cancer survivors. Here, she talks with us for our Huffington Post Blog series on yoga service.

Rob: What emotionally motivates you to give back the gift of yoga?

Tari: Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer; it literally took my breath away. I was caught off guard by how this made me feel like an invalid. It stole control away from my life. How could I go from being healthy to being sick, weak, and powerless? And this was not the most surprising part of it. Then came the treatments, which weakened my health, strength, and happiness more than the cancer. Everyone said, “Go home and take it easy,” but I needed help to stay strong. At the time, I was already a yoga practitioner, but it was largely in the name of vanity. My own practice immediately took on a greater importance. I tried to stay normal by walking, biking and, increasingly, doing more yoga.

I learned not to live in fear of losing my life, but rather to embrace what I have. By getting so close to losing it all, I was liberated to focus on the things and people that really mean the most to me. The lessons from my cancer have been the most powerful of my life, and actually I am often thankful for my cancer. It has made me a better version of myself. Yoga also helps me be a better version of myself, as it did the whole way through my cancer treatments and recovery. I feel strongly about sharing this healing tool with others, as I know others are feeling that same lack of support in staying strong. Yoga can be their remedy, too.

What changes occur during our asana, pranayama, or meditation practices that help us get off our mats and “give back” to our communities the benefits we’ve received through the practice of yoga?

The transformative nature of yoga, like cancer, changes your life forever. Through it we learn balance, harmony, goodness, and how to be peaceful, strong, and flexible. As a yoga teacher, when I see people who are suffering from the lack of these qualities in their lives, such as cancer patients, it ignites feelings of compassion in me to help them also find this transformative path to health and healing.

How did you begin to serve?

While I was in treatment my doctors commented on how quickly I recovered compared to others, and I began to ask if it had anything to do with the yoga. I came to a new relationship with my yoga practice through cancer, and I began to wonder why and how I was recovering so quickly and thoroughly, emotionally and physically. Because the doctors couldn’t understand why I was recovering better than others given the treatments that I was undergoing, and because the yoga community at that time had no answers, I began to research on my own and build a program around it. Once I had an understanding of the biological and physical relationship between practicing yoga and undergoing cancer treatments, I began to share a specialized practice with other cancer patients and survivors in need.

How can you serve without attachment to the outcome?

I don’t. I am attached to the outcomes. I’m attached to helping others find a way to deal with their anxieties, to get stronger, to avoid a recurrence, and to learn how to walk through their fears.

But I do serve without attachment in some ways. I have let go of fear of death. I’ve had to let go of my attachment to many students who have been lost to cancer or other disease. At any point a student may not come back to class, not because they don’t like me or the yoga, but because the cancer has taken control of them, and they have either entered terminal stage, or died.

There is no predicting where anyone is going to go in their cancer journey. The biggest lesson that yoga can teach, and that I can provide to my students, is to learn to take one day at a time. This means to not become attached to the outcome of that day, other than to be an opportunity to experience what is happening right now. I need to practice this in my teaching as much as they do in their experience of yoga.

How do you deal with compassion fatigue?

Feeling compassion is different from showing compassion. There are many ways of showing compassion, and some are less fatiguing than others. There is nothing wrong with finding approaches that are less stressful for you — one doesn’t have to give completely and constantly to everybody. Compassion is a broad term, and the expression of it comes in many forms.

Compassion is an emotional and physical action that requires energy, effort, and selflessness, by putting one’s needs aside, which can lead to stress and loss of emotional balance. We cannot really give contentment, ease, and compassion. As we seek to help those we serve balance suffering and contentment, illness and well-being, we can only model that in our own lives. We can give witness to the suffering of others, but we must first give witness to our own suffering. Take care not to deny yours.

It is my responsibility to respond well to my students — to recognize the symptoms in myself. Think, am I being-self absorbed, detached or preoccupied? Being honest with everyone, not just students, and being able to say “I can’t respond to this right now,” is important for all of who try to give back.

How do you model leadership when working with unserved populations?

By doing what I do: providing access to safe yoga classes at a reasonable cost with teachers who have been thoroughly trained. Also by providing scholarships to retreats and ways for people to discover yoga for the first time.

Taking responsibility for one’s health and future is the most important part of one’s own healing process. I practice this myself, and encourage students to do the same. It’s not something the medical profession can give to us; it is something we have to create and maintain for ourselves. Owning that process changes everything. Staying healthy isn’t going to happen easily; it’s an ongoing challenge with daily choices. Without effort, change won’t happen. No effort is a loss.

I teach students to walk through their fears. It is most beneficial to walk through fear of change, of pain, of lack of control, by doing things that are challenging. What students need and want is to be treated normally. In the process of being treated normally, they are going to get stronger. If the practice is just restorative, and not an effort to be normal and gain strength and stability, it’s much less effective.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My dream is that Western medical professionals and hospitals recognize that yoga taught by specially-trained and specifically-certified yoga teachers is the final prescription a cancer patient/survivor needs in his or her healing process. They can prescribe yoga for life, yoga for all the life-long side effects that will be there, regardless if the cancer is not.

Editor: Alice Trembour


Learn how to safely and effectively adapt yoga to cancer patients and survivors through yoga4cancer’s teacher training programs.

Rob Schware: The State of Yoga Service

As Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation and President of the Yoga Service Council, Rob Schware is proud to be part of a growing movement of yoga service providers who are helping to address societal problems such as school dropout rates, substance abuse, PTSD and high rates of re-imprisonment through therapeutic yoga outreach. Today, yoga service providers are reaching an estimated  200,000 individuals each year – including abused women, veterans, at-risk youth, cancer patients, prisoners and the homeless.

In “The State of Yoga Service,” Rob weighs in on:

  • the science behind yoga’s ability to change neurobiology
  • why the true experience of yoga inspires service
  • the progress of yoga service to date
  • how yoga outreach can benefit society
  • two important conversations that will take place in 2014
  • the impact of donations to Give Back Yoga
  • how to be inspired by stories of service, and how to contribute your own talents

 

If you believe in the power of yoga to plant the seeds of grassroots social change and healing, you won’t want to miss this special report on the state of yoga service in 2014.

 

Download “The State of Yoga Service.”

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Join us in giving back from your mat! By donating the equivalent cost of one yoga class – just $15 per month – you can bring yoga to a veteran, prisoner, at-risk teen or another person in need. Your contribution could transform a life.

Susan Reeves: Serving Cancer Patients and Survivors

Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Yoga Bridge co-founder Susan Reeves for The Huffington Post Blog about what inspired her to offer free yoga to cancer patients and survivors, and how the practice can be a powerful tool to help students heal the body and spirit.

“Students who first come to our class usually don’t know why they are there; they are just told that yoga will be good for them. Many times after just one class, a student will return and tell us a story of how yoga immediately came to her rescue. Terrified of an upcoming doctor appointment/first MRI/medical procedure, the student remembers the breathing practice that we did in class the week before, and puts it to use. To her surprise, it actually calms her nerves and gives her the inner strength to endure a difficult moment. Yoga works in simple, yet profound, ways.”

– Yoga Bridge co-founder Susan Reeves, on her work with cancer patients and survivors

Click here to read more of Susan’s thoughts on the resilience of cancer patients, and her vision for the future role of yoga in cancer treatment and survivorship.