Cancer survivors find peace and love in the labyrinth

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Cancer survivors Peggy Pruitt, Mary-Rose Honein and Carol Tierney walk the labyrinth outside the Carson Tahoe Cancer Center on Wednesday morning.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Cancer survivors Peggy Pruitt, Mary-Rose Honein and Carol Tierney walk the labyrinth outside the Carson Tahoe Cancer Center on Wednesday morning.

Who would have guessed that a circle with a long and winding path could bring about so much healing?

About a dozen women, all cancer survivors and members of a yoga class at the Carson Tahoe Cancer Center, found out that it could, at least for awhile.

They walked a labyrinth outside the center, a circular, maze-like structure, donated by the Carson Rotary Club, which is meant as a metaphor for life.

The labyrinth is eight-circuit, Chartres cathedral-style, which honors the number eight, historically associated with renewal and rebirth. It helps to walk, to reflect on a question. There is only one path in and out, and unlike a maze, there are no sudden stops.

According to facilitator Julie Schulz, the women walking in circles throughout the labyrinth were releasing emotionally.

"What they're doing is, you walk in and you are releasing, and in the center you receive - guidance, inspiration - whatever is there for you to receive," she said. "Some people do yoga poses in the labyrinth."

The women walked around in silence at first, and then as they get closer to the center of the labyrinth, some got teary, some reached out to comfort the others, and then they started to smile and eventually laugh.

Florence Phillips, of Carson City, a breast cancer survivor of two years who also had mobility difficulties, at first entered the labyrinth without her cane, which she has used for four years. Hesitant, she went back to get it, and started in again.

Midway toward the center, she threw it away.

"I just had a feeling I can throw it away, that I could do it without it," she said. "I never walked a distance without a cane for four years."

As she walked the labyrinth, she said "thank you for the healing," over and over, "and it was then I had the inclination to throw the cane away."

The women, mostly breast cancer survivors, ranging in age from their late 30s to late 70s, all said both the labyrinth and the yoga help them to heal.

"Since I have been taking yoga I have been able to walk up and down stairs normally," Phillips said. "I used to have to do it one step at a time with tiny steps. Now I can get down on the floor, too. I was never able to do that."

Phillips has a remarkable zest for life that poor health has not dimmed. She is also an actress, performing in "Wonder of the World" at the Brewery Arts Center.

"I say bad words in it," she said with a laugh. "I play a rude, hostile and abusive wife and my husband said it was typecasting."

Getting serious for a moment, Phillips said both her mother and sister died of breast cancer, and the yoga and labyrinth has helped. "I am so grateful to Julie for bringing this into my life," she said.

Yoga instructor Jill Mustaccio invited Schulz to introduce the class to the labyrinth. She said yoga was extremely beneficial to cancer survivors.

"It helps in so many ways," she said. "Physically, mentally, spiritually; it helps to gently stretch and strengthen the body."

She said the practice was more than 5,000 years old and combines breathing exercises with postures and meditation.

"There are many things health-wise that yoga improves," she said. "It is also a stress release. They can take time out to meditate. The bonding that happens here within this group is one of the most amazing things to see."

Schulz said that like yoga, the labyrinth is for everyone, no matter the physical limitations.

"Anyone can do the labyrinth," she said. "I have seen some people crawling it, or using wheelchairs. It allows new ways of seeing and relating to the illness itself."

Betty Retzer, of Stagecoach, a 21Ú2-year breast cancer survivor, said the yoga helps by teaching how to breathe, and raises self-awareness.

"It teaches you to come into yourself and know yourself," she said. "It helps you relax. It gives you flexibility, stretches ligaments. It brings together like people and we have some great support for each other."

The labyrinth, she said, mixes your emotions.

"You travel into it and as you travel through it, it brings your left brain and your right brain together, so you have a greater sense of yourself," she said. "You leave your troubles outside it."

Schulz said it helps change those who do it from a survivor to a thriver.

"It talks of healing," she said. "Not curing, but healing, an inner process that helps the person become whole again, physically, mentally and emotionally."

Mary-Rose Honein, of Minden, a mother of four, was in the class for the first time, and became very emotional when she got to the center of the labyrinth. The other women reached out to touch and comfort her and, by the end, she was laughing and even joined them in jerking off their wigs in a defiant show of sisterhood.

"I'm glad I came," she said. "It made me think about what's happening in my life. Most of the time I don't think about it, because I have children."

Carol Tierney of Carson City was diagnosed 10 months ago with breast cancer and said she feels blessed, despite her breast cancer.

She is a widow with three children, and said her diagnosis brought her friends close to her.

"I have the best friends," she said. "I never knew so many people loved me until this happened. It's like going to my own funeral but being alive and seeing the love."

Tierney works for an attorney and said she is on the run a lot. The yoga class helps bring her to a peaceful center.

"I love to just get that peace," she said. "You can feel the love in this room on Wednesdays."

Her treatment was supposed to be limited to a lumpectomy, she said, but then cancer was found in the lymph nodes and eventually required a total mastectomy, which she endures with humor.

"Did you know you can order boobs through the mail?" she asked.

Because she is taking the antidepressant Lexipro, she is physically unable to cry. Though that aids in her attitude, she said it has a downside.

"Sometimes I want to have a good cry," she said.

In the labyrinth, Tierney was eager to reach out and comfort her classmates.

"I know I would want to cry and I can't, so I could just go around a corner and hug someone, and know that we're all going to get well."

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 881-7351.


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