Nine months after I had been diagnosed with inoperable, metastasised stage-four pancreatic cancer, I was exhausted. I had been given six to 18 months to live and undergone nine cycles of chemotherapy. About 20 sessions of infusions had whacked not just the tumour but my entire system as well. A friend insisted a recharge at a wellness centre, and after careful research, my team and I chose Pema Wellness centre in Andhra Pradesh, India. With its 68 rooms, Pema is a newcomer to the Indian wellness scene. More established resorts in states like Kerala, and places such as Rishikesh and Bangalore, offer an array of ayurvedic (medicine with historical roots in India) treatments, yoga and traditional Indian therapies. Opened three years ago, Pema positions itself as a luxury wellness resort and offers naturopathy and yoga. Pema requested my latest medical reports for its senior team to examine before accepting me. In the interim, its naturopathy doctor Raja Raja Chozhan contacted me through WhatsApp. “Is there honestly something you could do for me?” I asked. I had already been turned away by cancer facilities in Portugal and Switzerland, and that still stung. Right from the outset, Dr Chozhan placed great emphasis on the facts that my disease was currently stable with tumour markers considerably down; that I was not in pain; was eating well; and had a strongly positive attitude. He believed a holistic approach to improve my “overall well-being” could also positively impact the pancreatic tumour. “But we’ll have to consider the fact that your cancer has metastasised,” he added. “Yoga therapy, a low calorie nutritious and vegetarian diet, counselling and biofeedback sessions await.” Beating pancreatic cancer: one woman’s story of how she survived My husband and I caught a direct flight from Singapore to Visakhapatnam. On arrival, we were weighed and had our fat content analysed, before an extensive consultation with Dr Chozhan. Beforehand I spoke to Dr SN Murthy, a naturopathy veteran who was cautious and conservative about Pema’s programme, and believed that many treatments could aggravate the metastasis. However, on seeing how positive I was, he relented with the advice to “go easy”, with no manipulation of the torso and abdominal areas. Acupuncture was also off limits. The first time I had one of the many different kinds of soothing massages, I felt a wave of immense gratitude. For months, the only time I had been asked to lie down for treatment had been to do uncomfortable surgical investigations and rather painful procedures. Now I was wafting in and out of sleep while soft, exotic Bhutanese hymns sung in a beautiful alto played. It could not do me anything but good, I decided. Pema is a cross between a luxury spa and a serious boot camp. The food was spartan – low in quantity but chock-a-block with nutrition. There were juices made from wheatgrass, celery, curry leaves and celery; soups made from tomato, carrot, mushroom and pumpkin; and a variety of innovative salads and smoothies. Meals were served tastefully and there was even mushroom “caviar” as a rare treat. Every meal came with a weight and calorie count. We were hungry all the time for the first three days and there was much whining and fantasising about having char kway teow, the classic noodle dish, or a glass of wine – but the only shots we had were of beetroot juice. We were packing in serious micro nutrients. Breakfast could be a banana smoothie with nuts and flaxseed. Lunch a carefully planned and doled out 178 calories, comprising 200g of tomato soup at 45 calories and 120g of taco salad at 133 calories. A more generous meal could be 200g of mulligatawny soup worth 11 calories, two rolls at 112 calories, 30g of ginger chutney at 56 calories and 100g of curd. I always seemed to get the least amounts and suspected they were trying to starve the cancer. Perhaps the deepest, most portable learning for me was yoga, which I believed could be a lifeline. I had been searching for a yoga master, and I found him at Pema Pancreatic cancer survivor J. Sid Anti-oxidant-rich food was the order of the day for me, every day. My husband and I are diabetics and had mandatory blood sugar level (BSL) testing every morning. Our BSL saw a steady decline and I needed less insulin. Dr Chozhan also had a flask of fresh turmeric boiled in milk with a dash of black pepper sent to the room at night “to level off the sugar” and detox. There was also a nightly ice pack for my lower abdomen. Perhaps the deepest, most portable learning for me was yoga, which I believed could be a lifeline. I had been searching for a yoga master, and I found him at Pema. Professor Prahalad Singh Chahar has been teaching yoga as therapy for 18 years and could not be more qualified. After intently listening to my story, he spent an evening scanning Dr Chozan’s notes. The next morning, on his day off, he drove up the hill to tutor me, determined to teach me as much as I could learn over the next six days. “Nature has the ability to heal,” he explained. “To activate healing at the cellular level, we need to breathe correctly and clear blockages. Yoga helps create balance and can get every cell to create positive energy – prana or chi – to heal and improve the body’s immunity.” I was a yoga novice but believed the ancient practice had plenty of merit, more so after my oncologist told me her patients who beat the odds practised either yoga or qigong, and that yoga was underwritten by insurers in the United States because of documented evidence that it helped cancer survivors. The professor taught me how to breathe – naturally and deeply – for healing. The poses did not matter, but focusing on how to breathe was key. By the end, the carefully tailored programmes paid off, and we were encouraged to take away and practise all we had learned. My insulin intake fell from 16ml to 10ml as my BSL went down to a healthy range. Two months later, my husband and I are still maintaining better BSL by eating less but more “nutritively”. On returning home, I have continued to practice yoga for an average of 45 minutes a day, and the professor still texts me regularly to check on my progress. I am yet to reach the levels I did while I was under his watchful eye and could “feel” the healing, but I am returning to health. The many challenges facing young cancer survivors Before I went to Pema my CA19-9 tumour markers had stood around 80 (I had started out 2,200 in May 2018 and the normal reading is below 34). After my return it went down 10 points to 70. A PET scan showed the core of the tumour had died and the cancer activity had fallen from 9 to 3. I do not attribute it all to the yoga and nutrition, of course. I believe I am blessed that the chemotherapy drugs work for me, but learning new ways to eat and to breathe also helped. How much, I don’t know, but I am happy for the precious insights I took away from Pema.