Michelle Stortz has been practicing yoga for a little more than a decade but in 2008 found a new, profound purpose for the activity. Stortz’s husband, Jonathan Mark Lustig, was diagnosed with cancer. In an attempt to help him cope with the lasting effects of the disease and the strain of chemotherapy, Stortz and Lustig began a morning yoga routine.
The results were instantaneous.
“We had a regular way of both working with the body, but also relaxing and meditating,” Stortz said. “So, I saw how that, at least took a little layer of anxiety off of him.”
Despite the changes, Lustig ultimately lost his battle with cancer. However, his death only motivated Stortz to leave her career in the performing arts to take up instructing yoga designed specifically for other cancer patients full-time. She wanted to be able to help others peel back the same layer.
While Stortz had been practicing yoga since the late 1990s and is trained in what is called Vinyasa style yoga (a vigorous yoga with strong focus on breathing), she wanted to further her education. In her search, she came across Jnani Chapman, a nurse based in San Francisco. Chapman, a long time yoga enthusiast, developed a program designed to train yoga instructors in the methods and practices of yoga tailored specifically for cancer patients.
“[She taught me] how to teach about the physiology of the practices,” Stortz said, “the inter-chemistry, how it’s changed during these practices, so that [the students] are educated and they’re armed with this information and they’ll be inspired to practice on their own.”
Stortz’s class lesson plans depend on her students but she will always include deep meditation at the end of session, allowing her students to fully let go of anything that troubles them, even if just for a few minutes. And her approach appears to be working or so it seems in Nancie Sitko Atkinson’s case. Sitko Atkinson has been a student of Stortz’s for five years, coming regularly to the Wednesday night yoga class at the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia in Fairmount Park.
“She actually teaches,” Sitko Atkinson said. “You learn while you’re doing the moves, while you’re doing the breathing. You just become very knowledgeable about why you should be doing [yoga].”
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer six years ago, Sitko Atkinson, 59, still receives chemotherapy treatments. While she said the treatments are draining, Stortz’s yoga class has been beneficial in maintaining her mental and physical health.
More than 14,000 women will die from ovarian cancer in 2014 and 20,000 more will be diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS also states ovarian cancer to be the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women. However, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, women with ovarian cancer are living longer and better lives due to scientific developments.
Sitko Atkinson may have bad days, and acknowledges others may too, but she remains optimistic and encourages others to do the same.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work the first time,” Sitko Atkinson said, “but keep it up and you can actually benefit from [the class].”
Fellow student Barry Grossman would agree. Grossman, 67, has been living with a form of leukemia called chronic lymphocytic leukemia for the past eight years. CLL is form of cancer that affects the blood cells and bone marrow and gradually gets worse as time goes on, according to the National Cancer Institute. The ACS credits CLL to be one third of all new cases of leukemia. However, Grossman credits some of his own benefits to the class, although he does admit it’s a slow learning process.
“I know, or believe, there’s a mind-body connection,” said Grossman. “Your mind can influence your body and vice-versa. So, I’m trying to learn how to better apply that.”
Grossman isn’t the only one learning the connection between the two. Yoga is gradually gaining a positive reputation amongst cancer patients, with strong support from national groups such as the ACS and smaller organizations such as the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia. Studies done by Penn Medicine and ACS solidify the potential benefits.
However, Grossman and Sitko Atkinson aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits. Stortz also benefits from the close interactions and relationships she maintains with those who attend her class. While Stortz says caring for her students sometimes takes a toll on her emotionally, it’s what makes her continue.
“I think it uses all parts of me,” Stortz said. “It challenges me to be the highest person I can be, the biggest sense of me. I knew coming into this, there would be those times and I signed up for it.”
Stortz not only teaches yoga at the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia, but at various other locations around the city. For more information regarding Stortz’s available classes, visit her website.
-Text, images and video produced by Samantha Kordelski