Yoga helps Georgia woman cope with bladder cancer at 41

Jennifer Balzano now teaches at Duluth Yoga, after rediscovering this centuries-old practice, during the most difficult ordeal of her life. 

She was 41, married with 3 young girls.

"I've been physically active my whole life," Balzano says. "I've been an athlete. I've been a runner. I'm a clean eater.  So, there was no reason for me to believe I was sick in any way."

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today, she's a 4-year survivor.

But one day, in the spring of 2015, she noticed some pink in her urine.

That is common is women Balzano's age.

But, Balzano couldn't stop thinking about it.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed at 41 with bladder cancer. (FOX 5 Atlanta)

"I just knew something was wrong, I just knew it," she says. "And, something just kept telling me all day, go get checked, go get checked, go get checked."

So, Balzano went to the ER that same day.

Doctors there ran some tests, which led to more tests.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today she's a 4-year survivor.

"And they found a tumor in my bladder," Balzano says.

The tumor was malignant.

"Hearing that word: 'cancer' completely changes your mindset," she says.  "Everything. I thought I knew fear.  I didn't. I thought I knew stress. I didn't. I thought I knew worry. I didn't."

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today, she is nearly 5 years out, and she has no evidence of cancer.

Within days Balzano was at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Newnan, meeting with Dr. Scott Shelfo the Director of Urological Oncology.

"Her case was a little unusual," Dr. Shelfo says.  "She was only 41-years-old. Most cancers occur in older patients.  And,

most patients, who develop bladder cancer, are chronic smokers and have a long history of that.  Jennifer did not."

Dr. Scott Shelfo is Director of Urological Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Newnan, GA. (FOX 5 Atlanta)

A biopsy revealed Balzano's cancer was aggressive and fast-growing.

A tiny piece of the tumor had already grown into her bladder wall.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today, she's nearly 5 years out, and cancer-free.

 "She was extremely lucky she caught it early," Dr. Shelfo says. "Had she not investigated the blood in her urine, and just attributed it to a urinary tract infection, she probably wouldn't be here today."

Since the cancer had spread to the bladder wall, Dr. Shelfo recommended removing Balzano's entire bladder.

But, because she was young, and healthy, he felt she was a great fit for a neobladder, a new bladder made from her small intestine.

"Dr. Shelfo takes a piece of the small intestine and he pockets it, to shape it like a bladder," Balzano says. "And, he attaches it to your urethra and your ureters from your kidneys. Over time, it functions, mainly like a bladder."

It was a complex surgery, and a pretty brutal recovery. 

The first time she went back to the gym, where she had been a regular, she broke down.

"I remember just standing in the middle of the weight floor, and I just started to cry," she says.  "I was so thin.  And all my muscle tone was gone. And I knew if I left, I would never come back.  So, I walked down to the yoga studio."

That's when Balzano found yoga again, this time to help her heal, physically and emotionally.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today she's approaching the 5-year mark, and has no evidence of the disease.

"The practice of yoga really helped me find myself again, being okay with being still and silent, and learning who I was again, my new me," she says.

Jennifer Balzano is now 4 and a half years out from her diagnosis, and has no evidence of cancer.

In the spring, she will hit the 5-year mark.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today she's approaching the 5-year mark, and has no evidence of the disease. (FOX 5 Atlanta)

"That's a big milestone," she says, pausing.  "That's a big milestone."

Leaning into yoga has helped Balzano make peace with life after cancer, and her fear of a recurrence.

Jennifer Balzano was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 41. Today she's approaching the 5-year mark, and has no evidence of the disease.

"Cancer is funny," Balzano says. "It's terrifying, but it also offers a new sense of self, a new sense of importance, if you let it."

I hope it's made me a better person.  I hope it's made me a better, yoga instructor, a better mom, a better daughter, I hope."