Never Give Up: "Yoga Helped Me Survive Ovarian Cancer" - Audrey DeLong

When we came across the wonderful Audrey DeLong, a stage III ovarian cancer survivor and amazing California-based yogi, we knew that we had to share her amazing story with you. Audrey epitomises strength not just because she is fighter, but more so because of her incredible willingness to accept where life takes her and be constantly mindful of what she has to be thankful for. We hope you are as inspired by this interview as we are.

About Audrey Delong - Yoga Teacher

As a lover of the great outdoors, today, 15 years after her horrendous ordeal with cancer, Audrey hardly sets a foot inside. "I love the adrenaline, the physical activity, the pushing myself to try new things and meeting new people in new places," Audrey tells Lots of Yoga. Audrey grew up mostly in Ohio. After graduating from college and surviving the stage 3 ovarian cancer, she moved to the mountains of Southern CA to teach outdoor education and became a ski patroller on the weekends.

Unfortunate, Audrey's turbulent period in her early adulthood continued even after her struggle with cancer. She suffered from two major injuries that, once again, took her out of commission for several years; a skiing accident resulting in three quarters of her lower leg being shattered, and a few years later, crippling carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. Despite all the setbacks, she continued to press on, rebuild strength, and keep the faith. She joined a ministry school that was pivotal to her development of self awareness and inner peace.

We had the privilege of chatting with and interviewing the lovely Audrey to find out how she remains so strong, zesty, full of life, and motivated, in the hopes that it will also rub off on us!

How did you first get into yoga?

I first learned about yoga when my Dad brought a yoga library book home, when I was maybe 8 or 10 years old. I remember looking at the pictures in the book and trying the different poses. I was in gymnastics at the time and thought to myself that it was very similar, but I noticed there was something different about it and it intrigued me. The first yoga class I actually remember taking was a few months after graduating college when my friends/roommates and I went to the Tennis Club's yoga class because we could get in for free. It was an incredible experience. That instructor was so good: walking around assisting, a very physical class, but so relaxing and comfortably spiritual. We all loved it and went as much as we could.

When did you discover that you had ovarian cancer?

I first knew something was wrong with me in about February of 2001, but I wasn't diagnosed with cancer until August 2001, after a 5-pound tumour was removed from my abdomen.

What was your recovery from ovarian cancer like?

I didn't do much of anything. I was bed bound and lived in a wheelchair. I was fed by an IV for 9 months. Looking out the window was often too much stimulation. I thought I'd read books and watch movies, but I often just laid bed, breathing, with my eyes closed, fighting for every moment to live. Cancer is horrible. Everyone's experience is so vastly different. I didn't work at all for about 2 years and when I did go back to work, I pushed myself and was exhausted after working just 10 hours a week.

Did yoga help your recovery? 

Yoga definitely helped my recovery. I was in Cincinnati, Ohio during my acute battle with ovarian cancer and there was an incredible and free resource for cancer patients. My mom and I took many of the classes they had there: whole food cooking, Tai Chi, counselling, massage, guided imagery, and yoga, but during that time, I was often wheelchair bound, so my yoga looked nothing like it does now: it was a lot of breathing and small, small movements, but it was hard for me at the time! I had an intense desire to live and did (and still do) whatever it takes to live, and live well. With this intention to fight and live, each yoga class, and each new and "weird" thing I tried, planted the seeds that are growing today.

An ovarian cancer diagnosis is a death sentence for most. I was featured in my local newspaper about 2 years ago as an ovarian cancer survivor who is now teaching yoga. I met a woman soon after that article who had also survived ovarian cancer and this 70-something-year-old woman looked me in the eyes and said, "It's so nice to meet you. There aren't many of us, are there?"

What advice would you give to someone going through ovarian cancer?

My advice would be to do the weird stuff! Follow your heart. Don't give up. Fight, and then, once you've gotten through the worst of it, live, stop fighting, love, cry, and enjoy this gift that's been given. I've realised recently, that I've been pushing myself and fighting and taking new ground, and, I'm tired; I'm not actively fighting cancer any more and this trait that served me so well, all these years, is hindering me now.

Physically, for someone in the position that I was, I'd recommend Yoga Nidra. I had physical therapy when I lived or stayed in the hospital (I would stay for a month or more, I was so sick). So, now, as a yoga therapist, I would do similar things for someone who's recovered to not need physical therapy anymore, but still not at the point of walking on their own for very long. This would include:

  • Heel/calf raises
  • Marching in place
  • Deep breathing.
I'd probably add in other pranayama techniques as they progress, walking for a minute, then increasing it each week if they can handle it. Some yoga poses to try would be:
  • Baddha Konasana (Cobbler's Pose)
  • Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) using a table and not widening the feet very far, but working on that over time
  • Half Sun Salutations, possibly in a chair if they get dizzy/unstable
  • Cat/Cow Pose, again possibly in a chair
  • Some gentle twists using a chair.

What was the biggest change that happened to you as a result of your illness?

This is a hard question to answer because the experience is such a part of me, it's almost hard to think back to what life was like "before." For sure, though, cancer gave me the push I needed to just do it and move. After graduating college, I knew I didn't want to stay in Ohio, but I was scared... scared to go out on my own, scared to move somewhere I didn't know anyone, scared of the unknown. After cancer, I was still scared, but I knew that I could die at any moment, and I wanted to live. I didn't care that I was scared. I wanted to move to West Virginia, so I did. I wanted to move to California, so I did. I didn't know anyone, I didn't care. I wanted to live and go and experience beauty and fun and adventure and life, and I knew that in order to do that, I would have to just go. 

"[Before cancer, I was] scared of the unknown. After cancer, I was still scared, but I knew that I could die at any moment, and I wanted to live."

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your teenage self?

Wow. Good question.... I don't know that I would tell myself anything, because I don't know that I would have listened! I was a stubborn teenager and really didn't trust adults much, although I desperately wanted to. Looking at my life, I have been someone who wants to experience stuff. I'm changing now. I've experienced a lot and I'm seeing how that experience translates to a maturity and a settling down, but as a teenager, I was kind of rebellious and probably a bit angry. No one would have guessed because I wanted to portray myself as a perfect student, cheerleader, girlfriend, friend, sister, daughter, etc., but looking back now, I was frustrated, confused, looking for love.

What is your day-to-day life like?

Even after 15 years, I still have a lot to do today to recover from cancer, the surgeries, and the therapies (i.e. chemo, drugs, etc.) I received from 2001-2003. My daily life includes a lot of healing therapies for myself like myofascial release therapy. I am doing (another) detox that I've been on since October 2015, and sip on a liquid once every hour for 8-hours a day. I eat organic foods and drink a healthy amount of green tea and kombucha and I take lots of supplements. Meditation is a huge part of my day. Most weeks, I do one or more full, personal yoga asana practice of various styles depending on my body's energy and need. This could be yin yoga, vinyasa, SUP or restorative yoga. I also practice Yoga Nidra at least once a week.

Right now, I teach 1-3 group or private yoga classes a day, with Monday being my day off, after a weekend of SUP Yoga or travelling to teach. I am sponsored by the US and eco SUP manufacturer, Glide, so I have commitments to them to fulfil. I operate On Water Yoga, a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) Yoga "studio," year-round and do the admin, marketing, event planning, etc. for that, and for my personal teaching and retreat coordinating and leading, but for one more month, I have the help of an intern from the ministry school I graduated from. She's been an incredible gift to work and grow with, both personally, professionally, and spiritually. I see God in all I do, and all that is, so I will often stop, pray, give thanks, and drop into the larger perspective of the Great I Am, breathing life into the very moment.

What is your all-time favourite yogic thing to do?

My favourite yoga is usually the yoga I just did at any given time. I so often gush to my clients, students, fellow teachers, family, whoever will listen, and say "Oh, such and such (insert: meditation, yoga nidra, pranayama, SUP Yoga, yin yoga, restorative yoga, etc.) yoga is my FAVOURITE!" I've begun to notice this just recently. I love yoga and all the adventure that lies within it. Its history, its intention to yoke/unite our entire beings with the entirety of God is the best and grandest adventure of all! I've been enjoying the yoga journey and living in the moment, right here, right now. Nothing has quite taught me how to experience God in my life, like yoga has, and this is intoxicatingly wonderful.

What have you learnt from your study of yoga?

All the virtues that we've grown up to admire and maybe think aren't attainable, are not only attainable, but are also truly admirable. Truthfulness, kindness, non-stealing, not coveting, being true to yourself, purity, discipline, contentment, joy, self study, spirituality, devotion to God/something greater than yourself... these are the greatest treasures I've found to not only give me a direction, a purpose, but as I pursue these, I see that they in turn inspire and bring these very same qualities to those around me. Goodness, faith, hope, love, all these things are contagious, but only when they are real. These qualities are hard work, but are also the most profound work I've ever done, and can't be done by anyone other that ourselves, on the inside.

You become who/what you spend the most time around/doing; if you continue to focus on hate and anger, that's what you will build more of in your life, if you choose to forgive and trust the unseen, you will find more freedom, lightness, and ease in your life. The choice is always our own.

14 Awesome Life Tips from Audrey:

  1. Start where you are
  2. Do what you can
  3. Be mindful
  4. Keep growing
  5. Eat organic, local, whole foods that are in-season
  6. Grow your own and/or trade with your neighbours
  7. Be mindful of where your food came from (the living condition of the animals)
  8. Fitness advice: "move it, or lose it"
  9. Do what makes you feel alive
  10. Try new things even though it's scary
  11. Do something, anything
  12. Know that you are not alone, find other like-minded people, because people make it fun and motivate you to keep going
  13. For motivation, read your bible, call your therapist, go to temple, chant your mantra
  14. Let the naysayers be naysayers.

Audrey DeLong is an E-RYT 200, Level 1 Yoga Therapist. For more information, check out her website, and also On Water Yoga for SUP Yoga, SUP events and private classes.

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