“Each year in the U.S. there are an estimated 15,780 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age who are diagnosed with cancer,” according to The American Childhood Cancer Organization.

And to put it into perspective, “globally there are more than 250,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year.”

Many organizations, non-profits, researchers, patients and supporters work tirelessly to find cures, raise awareness and educate others about cancer.

Robyn Long is one of them. Her deep compassion for children, understanding of the healing benefits of the yoga practice and her research led her to pursue a career in health. She designs and leads well-being programs while working as a psychosocial consultant, a yoga instructor and a researcher. Long’s focus in the past three years has been working specifically with children who are going through cancer treatment or who are recovering.

Prior to moving to Seattle, she lived in Calgary, Alberta and supported the efforts of the Health and Wellness Lab at the University of Calgary, which focuses on the quality of life and physical activity, such as yoga, of cancer survivors who are on or off treatment.

“At first it was difficult,” Long said. The children come and a lot of them are tired because they’ve just had a chemotherapy which will keep their energy low for at least a couple of days, “and that is tough to see.” But, “they will still come in with good spirits,” she said.

Their bravery, positive attitude and the depth of their courage inspired her. It changed her.

The compassion between the children was indescribable, she explained. For example, if they had a yoga session and one of the children was low on energy and couldn’t do the exercises for that day, the rest of the children would gather up around that child to support him or her.

Speaking about it Long’s eyes tore up.

Acknowledging those limitations, the lab’s yoga classes were specifically designed to meet the children’s needs by providing a modifiable healing practice depending on the level of their energy. The philosophy was to help the children to learn how “to move within and honor their limitations that day.”

In collaboration with Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed and Gregory Guilcher, and the children, Long participated in the design, execution and publishing of the yoga manual for child and adolescent cancer patients and survivors called Yoga Thrive for Youth: Practice to promote wellness during and after cancer treatment. (free pdf)

Colette Benko, a participant in the program, shared with us how yoga helped her both during treatment and through recovery:

“I found that yoga was relaxing and helped with stress as well as enabling me to do something I wouldn’t have been able to do while on treatment. One thing I found the most beneficial was learning many variations of one pose allowing me to take part even with having limitations and also to accommodate how I was feeling,” Benko said.

Currently, Long’s focus is community outreach here in Seattle, and beyond. Last year, through the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, she was able to travel to the Middle East where she trained yoga teachers and prepared them to work at the pediatric cancer center in Bethlehem, West Bank.

SYN asked if there was a difference between kids in Seattle and kids in Bethlehem.

Long said, “Absolutely not. That is the biggest piece of it. They still have all of the sass in the world.”

Moving to Seattle, Long learned about City of Hope, one of 41 cancer centers that do comprehensive care, research and focus on a cure for cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases. Their high-ranking and collaborative reputation across the country was impressive and she instantly wanted to get involved and help in any way she could.

“This is at the heart of yoga. They [City of Hope] say: There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul,” Long said.

City of Hope’s vision resonated with Long’s work and point of view and she instantly reached out to them.

As a first step, Long was invited as a guest speaker to participate in City of Hope’s Yoga for Hope event, which happens on July 18 at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Each year, survivors, yoga practitioners and supporters gather together to raise awareness about the benefits of yoga and funds for research and integrative therapies.

It is very empowering for people who are going through treatment to get in touch with their body, Long believes. Pediatric Oncology is a relatively small field, so it is difficult to get the data to understand how treatments work and their impact on children, but City of Hope’s Children’ Oncology group (COG) brings together researchers from North America and Europe and without COG, “pediatric oncology would be where it is at today. Today, 90 percent of children with cancer will survive past five years. In the 1960’s, less than 50 percent would survive. And so, these great achievements are because of associations like COG and City of Hope being one of those organizations that helps,” Long said.

Even with the huge improvements in medicine, the statistics can be overwhelming.

  • Breast cancer cases in 2015: 231,840 women and 2,340 men. Put another way, one in every eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.
  • Prostate cancer cases in 2015: 220,800 men. Prostate Cancer will affect one in every seven men in the U.S. during his lifetime.

Going through treatment is about prevention, cure and treatment and if we cannot be part of those pieces, at least we can all be part of the community.

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[Photo by Gerolf Nikolay – CC BY]