Fitness Saved My Life: From Cancer Patient to Yoga Instructor
At 15, Danielle Orner-a high school track and cross-country athlete-discovered a hard bump on her leg. Assuming it was nothing more than a running-related injury, she visited sports medicine doctors, until a local doctor diagnosed the bump for the much more serious ailment it was: sarcoma. "I went from worrying about when I could get back to track to knowing I had bone cancer," recalls Orner, now 29 and living in Los Angeles.
Though chemo shrank the tumor, its proximity to a major blood vessel worried doctors. So just shy of her 16th birthday, Orner had her right leg amputated. Five months later, she walked out of the hospital on a new prosthetic leg.
Navigating a New Life
Orner returned to school and tried running again, but her prosthetic made her feel clunky, so she quit. "I decided I wouldn't try to recreate my old life," she says, noting that she transferred her passion to acting, and went to college on a theater scholarship. Performing on stage helped Orner regain confidence, but ongoing struggles with the disease gave made her feel like a ticking time bomb.
By the time she turned 23, Orner was still seeing doctors for scans and surgeries, but wasn't happy with her treatment. "I'd ask what I could do at home to get better, but they'd never make recommendations-I could have been eating Twizzlers and chugging Diet Cokes, for all they knew," she says.
And after one terrifying treatment caused her to go into anaphylactic shock, Orner decided to take her health into her own hands. After all, acknowledging dissatisfaction, she says, is a crucial step in changing your life. "I stopped putting on a happy face, and started to question what was truly best for me."
Taking Matters into Her Own Hands
Orner continued treatment, but with the help of her mother and husband at the time, started researching anti-cancer diets and the mind-body connection. Inspiration came from books espousing a plant-based diet, such as Kris Carr's Crazy Sexy Cancer.
She flooded her body with vegetables, drank green smoothies, and ate huge salads for lunch and dinner. Soon, she became completely vegan. She also took up yoga, which became not just a workout, but also a life-changing habit. At her first class, Orner could hardly do half of the flow. "But the more I went, I started to find modifications for my body and made peace with the moves I'd never be able to do," she recalls.
When Orner met Annie Carpenter-a yoga teacher who focuses on proper alignment-in early 2013, her practice soared to new heights. "She taught me that you shouldn't force yourself into the pose, but rather make the pose work for you-no matter if it looks like the cover of Yoga Journal or not," says Orner. Living in a way that's real-and maybe even ugly at times-is better than being unauthentic, she adds.
Soon, at 26, Orner noticed that her lifestyle changes had made a difference: Scans showed she had been cancer-free for over two years.
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Self-doubts still creep in from time to time for Orner, who is cancer-free today. When Carpenter encouraged Orner to enter yoga teacher training, for example, Orner balked. "I thought, ‘I could never be a teacher. What do I possibly have to give?'" But she confronted another truth: Putting limitations on yourself limits you from living the life you want. So she went for it. Last year, Orner received her teacher certification.
And she hasn't given up spreading her good word: Orner stars in inspirational yoga videos; has written about her experience in several poetry collections, works of fiction, and a series of memoirs; and in 2010, wrote Exposure, a screenplay inspired by stories of women who lost limbs in the war, yet still returned to combat. (It placed as a semi-finalist in the 2011 American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest.)
But Orner's newfound health has had another deep effect too. Realizing she had her entire life ahead of her-a feeling she hadn't had since age 15-Orner knew it was time to come to terms with who she truly was. So after five years of marriage, she made the brave and difficult decision to divorce her husband and come out as gay. "As a photographer, he taught me about letting go of perfectionism and seeing the value in what is," she says. "I'm so grateful to him for the ways he taught me to see beauty instead of brokenness."
To read more about Danielle's story and watch her yoga videos, please visit her website.