Judy Waxman had already been practicing yoga for a decade when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). But that series of stretches and flexibility exercises did more than just help her discover an AML symptom. It also helped her to recover from the treatment.
“I got into yoga when a good friend twisted my arm,” she says. “I realized that with a bad back, I needed to be more active. Then one day in class, I noticed I couldn’t breathe deeply anymore. But I didn’t put two and two together until the other symptoms started.”
“Those put the cancer into remission, but my doctors told me it wouldn’t last,” Judy says. “I knew I would eventually need a stem cell transplant.”
Back in motion
Judy received a stem cell transplant under the care of Richard Champlain, M.D., and afterwards, she was encouraged to stay physically active. So she gritted her teeth, forced herself to get dressed and made sure she walked around at least a little each day.
“Getting dressed while on the stem cell floor was important,” she says. “It made a night and day difference in my outlook and helped me feel just a little bit more normal.”
Judy’s initial goal was just to complete the loop around the hospital floor, but she soon decided she was ready to try longer distances – and resume her yoga practice. She got help from Madonna McManus, Ph.D., then a graduate student studying cancer biology and experimental therapeutics at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, a combined program of MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“Judy’s son came to my yoga class one night and mentioned that he was looking for a teacher for his mom, who was in the hospital,” McManus says. “Because I was studying cancer biology and loved yoga, I couldn’t help but feel this was meant to be.”
A date with destiny
The relationship forged between the two women over the following weeks was particularly meaningful because of McManus’ own family history. Her father had been diagnosed with mesothelioma while she was still in grad school, and he’d died within a matter of weeks.
“I had taken a specialized course for yoga and oncology, so I had heard stories of how yoga completely changed and healed cancer patients,” McManus says.
“Unfortunately, my dad’s disease was so aggressive that he didn’t feel like moving. And he wasn’t the type to want to do yoga. I wished so badly that I could have used yoga’s tools (mindfulness, breath, meditation) to help my dad. But he just had no interest. It was heartbreaking.”
McManus says that there was a feeling of destiny to Judy’s son’s appearance in her yoga class six months after her father’s death.
“To have the opportunity to contribute to someone else’s fight meant the world to me,” McManus says. “Judy may say that yoga was a lifeline for her, but she may never understand what a tremendous lifeline she was for me. Connecting with her gave me hope when I was feeling hopeless.”
“We really needed each other,” Judy adds. “I owe Madonna so much. It was a match made in heaven.”