How Back Pain During Yoga Class Reminded Me My Health Issues Are Chronic


“Are you sure this is a good idea?” my husband asked, trying to hide his panic as I tore the plastic wrapping off my newly purchased yoga mat. Looking back on that moment I’d have to say he had every right to be concerned. My back had only just recently recovered from another failed attempt to get back into running, but I thought I was safe this time. After all, this was just a beginners’ yoga class with a friend. I was certainly no guru, but I knew my way around a downward dog and a triangle pose well enough. Everything was going to be OK.

 

And, everything was OK. Everything was OK for the first three minutes. I perfectly maneuvered the front lobby, found the right spot to leave my sparkly flip flops, grabbed a few squishy yoga implements to help perfect my form, tiptoed my way around the many bodies that had almost entirely filled up the yoga studio, laid claim to my spot and sat down. The lights were dimmed while the sound of sitar music began to float through the air.

Back straight, legs stretching forward, now flex those toes.

That’s when the familiar sharp pain struck my back like a lightning bolt. I knew what it was. I’ve dealt with it on and off since I had the surgery to remove a desmoid tumor from my left hip. The resulting spasms slowly moving through my lower back and hips were a familiar feeling too. These events were the precursor to what would most likely be three days in bed, flat on my back, eating NSAIDS like candy, alternating heat, cold and my trusty TENS Unit.

Just as I thought I could handle this yoga class, I thought I could keep the inevitable at bay by simply lying down. There I was, on my back and all around me arms, legs, fit bodies moving in perfect synchronization. I was paralyzed in a way. I was afraid to attempt to get up and be shocked by another jolt of searing pain. I was also tied down by my own ego, too scared to interrupt the class and ask for help, too afraid to let anyone see me hobble away in my self-imposed shame. So, I stayed and stared at the ceiling, and occasionally a tear would roll down my cheek. A tear from pain. A tear from sadness. A tear from suppressed laughter.

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When the class was over I somehow managed to right myself, rolled my yoga mat up, placed my feet back in my sparkly flip flops and gingerly walked back to my car. “What happened?” my friend asked, baffled by my behavior. “My back, again.” Always my back, the rancid cherry on the sewage sundae that was my surgery. My back, the unexpected consequence of a type of tumor I’d never heard of until it began to grow inside me.

I’d made the decision to have surgery to remove my desmoid tumor. I made it in haste, out of fear, and in complete ignorance of what type of treatment my extremely rare tumor required. Along with that tumor, leg muscle was removed to create wide, clear margins. Clear margins were not possible on all sides in my case. Unbeknownst to me, that didn’t matter. Even if I’d had clear margins the possibility that my tumor would recur was still there. That is the nature of desmoid tumors. They tend to be relentless and surgery can, often times, be the fuel that feeds their fire.

A year and a half after my surgery it did recur and it brought a friend. With two tumors tucked away in my now surgically altered, concave hip, I found a specialist and was put on the proper treatment for me, a year of oral chemotherapy. That did the trick and both tumors are now dead. Post chemo, my body grows stronger every day and my energy is rebounding. My will to become more active is fierce, but my body can’t comply.

Having had muscle removed, the muscles in my other leg must compensate in order for me to walk. Everything being thrown out of whack causes strain on all surrounding muscles. The dead tumors, which are like large lumps of scar tissue, will have to stay with me. Removing them surgically is far too risky. Their presence often causes surrounding muscles, nerves and other tissues to be stretched or squished or otherwise aggravated. That is the part of my illness nobody sees. My tumors are dead, but my body is forever changed.

There was great cause for celebration when I finally received the news I’d longed to hear, that tumors more stubborn than I were finally dead. That was the finale for everyone else, but for me it was just another beginning. While everyone else assumed my recovery would take an upward trajectory, I knew my body was now compromised from my surgery. Physical therapy allowed me to walk on my own two feet again, but those steps have been slow. My body can’t do what it once did, and certainly can’t stay at the same pace it once did.

I did recover from that yoga class, a couple days in bed using my standard therapy. I’ve even attempted yoga since, making it halfway through a session before sitting down and deciding I didn’t want to push my luck. In between yoga attempts will be slow walks and hikes, short swims in the pool. I’ll get back. I will. It’ll be a slow plodding along, but I’ll make progress.

In the meantime, there will be lessons for those around me, the people that think it’s all over and everything is better. They might be surprised when I need to take their hand when my leg gets weak or when I ask them to slow down so I can keep up or when I need to lie down in yoga class, but they will learn. It’s not always over when the treatment is complete. I still need patience, support and understanding. The tumors are dead, but there is still work to be done. There will always be work that needs to be done, even if they don’t see that.

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Thinkstock photo via jacoblund.

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