It might be perceived as an older person’s illness, but Adele Kinghan was fit, healthy, and had just turned 25 when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Bedridden after major surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, she started researching the principles of yoga, and soon discovered the mindset behind the ancient practice can be even more healing than the physical poses.
Now 37, she teaches yoga to people from all walks of life, as well as some of the valuable life lessons she’s learned along the way.
A life-changing diagnosis
“Looking back, I can almost pinpoint to the day when I noticed my first tummy upset. I was nauseous on and off for a few years, and often really exhausted, but I always put it down to the usual things like studying and working too hard.
“My doctor initially thoughT it was a gastro illness like giardia, and gave me antibiotics. My symptoms eased for a while and then came back with a vengeance, so back to my doctor I went, and I was given an X-ray, which showed nothing.
Due to my family history – my mum had been diagnosed with bowel cancer at 48 – I was referred to a specialist, who listened to my story and sent me away with laxatives.
“It got to the point where I hadn’t been able to go to the bathroom properly in months, and I was doubling over in pain that was so bad it would make me vomit. When I fainted on the bathroom floor after vomiting one night, my partner said enough was enough and took me to A&E, where an ultrasound revealed something blocking my bowel.
The hospital staff were quite evasive at first, but they kept saying things like “Is your family here? Do you have some support around?”
It was a surreal moment when I first found out. It was during a colonoscopy procedure when I was high on pain meds but still alert, and I heard the surgeon say, “Hmm, not what we expected, but there’s a cancerous tumour in your bowel and we have to operate immediately.”
It was a long operation, and they decided to remove most of my large bowel, as that means there’s less area for the cancer to come back. I only have about 20 per cent of my large bowel left, but because I was relatively healthy I didn’t have to have a colostomy bag.
It took me a long time to recover from the surgery, and once I was out of hospital I had to wait for about a month before I got the results about the tumour. It had spread to my lymph nodes, so the next step was chemo for six months. I started to realise that my mindset would play a big role in my recovery.
My first intro to yoga wasn’t as a physical practice – it was more around the breathing techniques to help me manage the nausea and anxiety, and meditation techniques to help me build that positive relationship with my body and mind.
I would read library books about it because there wasn’t much information online then. You can’t change what happens when you are diagnosed with cancer. It’s the cards you are dealt, so I realised it was really up to me.
It was little things like even changing the language you use. The term ‘fighting’ cancer has a real aggression to it, and the last thing you want when you are navigating your way through something so challenging is aggression.
I chose to focus on acceptance, and when you can do that, there is a lot more ease, space and energy to do the good things you need to do, as you’re not so consumed and exhausted by the unfairness of it.
If you dial it back to its essence, the big question yoga is seeking to answer is ‘how do I eliminate suffering that I experience in my life and find freedom?’ When I was really unwell I did beat myself up.
I thought to myself ‘I shouldn’t have been eating meat, especially with my family history’, and all sorts of things, but then you have to think: What’s the point? What’s done is done. It comes back to thought processes around choosing to be victimised or empowered.
Tragically, my mum’s fiancé was also diagnosed with bowel cancer, only two weeks after me. So not only was she dealing with her only child having cancer, the love of her life was severely unwell too.
Unfortunately it had spread to his spine and he died six months later. I saw the incredible mindset my mum had, and that was what got me through.
After I got the all-clear from my specialist that there were no more cancer cells in my body, my partner and I decided to pack up and travel overseas. We travelled through Central America for six months before arriving in Canada, at a tiny town in the mountains. It was really healing for me. I started going to yoga class and after 12 years, I haven’t stopped!
The chemo affected my fertility, and my oncologist at the time had said normally they would offer for me to freeze my eggs, but because it was so acute, he advised I just get straight on to the treatment.
I had just turned 25 and it wasn’t on my radar anyway. More recently, we decided to look into fertility treatment. Our second attempt at IVF was successful, and we’re over the moon to be starting a family.
When it comes to my yoga teaching, I never pretend to have it all worked out. I can’t put my leg behind my head for Instagram pics or anything like that! I focus on having the curiosity to ask the bigger questions. Being curious engages you in life, and it’s about ‘how can I expand with this information, rather than be diminished by it?’
At the time I got sick, I was in this Western idea of ‘do do do, go go go’. I was so set on achieving that I wasn’t really listening to what was happening in my body, and I was missing out on what was going on in the present.
When I was forced to stop, it was like being hit by a bus. But in a way I’m really thankful for that bus. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy, but it means I’ve had the chance to shift my life to a better course.
Bowel cancer in New Zealand
• According to New Zealand Ministry of Health cancer stats, around 3200 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year.
• More than 1200 Kiwis die from bowel cancer each year, as many deaths as from breast and prostate cancer combined.
• New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer and bowel cancer death in the developed world.
• The illness is more common in the 50-plus age group, although it affects people of all ages.
For more information see beatbowelcancer.org.nz