Teasers For Tatas! By Melissa Miles

First published on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, in Issue #347 of Brett Miller’s PilatesIntel.com e-newsletter and shared with permission and gratitude!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month when dedicated organizations across the globe drape themselves in pink and remind women everywhere to screen via self-exams and mammograms since early detection is closely correlated with long-term survivorship. It’s a time of fundraising for screening, research, and services for those affected by breast cancer. And for those of us traveling the road of Survivorship, the month of pink ribbons offers a signpost on the journey traveled since the fateful day we heard “you have cancer.” Some acknowledge October with a walk-a-thon, others attend fundraising galas, some volunteer in local hospitals.

I celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month the way I celebrate most things: with Pilates.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer worldwide, and one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. It is highly survivable when detected early—nearly 8 million women globally have survived a breast cancer diagnosis within the past 5 years—and advances in treatment have prolonged the life expectancies of women living with metastatic breast cancer. So as Pilates instructors, we all have taught, and will continue to teach, clients battling or managing survivorship of this disease. Indeed, Joseph Pilates himself famously taught Eve Gentry after her radical mastectomy in 1955 at age 46; his effort to help her regain her strength and range of motion after the loss of her breast and pectoral muscle is largely why we have archival footage of his teaching. Breast cancer rehabilitation has a significant place in the history of the Pilates method, and I remembered this history when I received my own diagnosis at age 40. Pilates helped Eve and Pilates will help me, and I’ll get through this, I thought.

When I shared my diagnosis with the studio I worked for, and later with my clients, I was showered with support. The studio generously offered to let me jump into classes whenever I felt up to it even though I took a leave from teaching to undergo pre-surgical chemotherapy. Clients offered all kinds of assistance: many sent gifts, others offered to organize a fundraiser to help defray my treatment expenses. No one has your back like the Pilates community!! I was fortunate enough to have robust health insurance and a loving partner willing and able to support me through treatment, but I was moved by the generous spirit of my Pilates community and made a mental note that once I got through treatment, I would figure out how to harness that generous spirit for those in less secure circumstances.

As I sat through long chemo sessions and attended support groups with other women battling the fatigue, brain fog, hot flashes, nerve pain, joint and muscle pain, lymphedema, weight gain and the myriad side effects associated with breast cancer treatment, I knew I wanted to share Pilates with my fellow travelers. Upon returning to teaching, I organized a complimentary class for patients at the hospital where I was treated. I’ve been teaching this class for nearly six years now, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see patients maintain their strength during—and grow stronger after—treatment. Participants improve upper body range of motion and flexibility (lost due to surgery and/or chemotherapy), regain the balance that diminishes from chemotherapy, rebuild strength, improve stamina, reduce nerve pain, and increase breath support. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s wonderful to see the support these women in various stages of treatment and survivorship provide each other while working their way through an abdominal series: the energy of a Pilates class combined with the camaraderie of a breast cancer support group creates a supportive community that lifts the spirits of all of us each week.

Two years after my diagnosis, equipped with my new (non-lethal!) breasts and following through on my wish to harness the generosity that the Pilates community offered me when I was first diagnosed, I created Teasers For Tatas – an annual Pilates fundraising event to fund supportive wellness services such as massage therapy, nutrition counseling, support groups, meditation, yoga and (of course) Pilates to ease the journey of those managing treatment, survivorship or “pre-vivorship” (when those with a family history opt for a prophylactic bi-lateral mastectomy) of this disease. I envisioned it as a celebration of the strength of all of us who regain our relationships with our bodies through the practice of Pilates.

TFT’s first iteration was a one-day live event in which instructors volunteered their teaching time and participants made donations in exchange for small group Pilates sessions taught by three instructors in a round robin-style format. It was small but festive and we raised a modest sum that went to a local hospital that offers free wellness services to its patients. One of the volunteer instructors, the inimitable Juan Estrada of Real Pilates in NYC, led the final group session and punctuated the last moments with a shout of “F*** Cancer!!” This has now become a tradition for the final moments of TFT.

From there, TFT has grown. The second-year saw instructors from multiple studios in NYC volunteer their time for our event, and the studio featured a blank wall where participants could write a message about the person they were honoring or remembering that day. In its third and fourth years, TFT moved to a larger venue that was able to accommodate even larger groups, and we held events in multiple states: Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and California. We distributed all proceeds to various hospitals as well as a nonprofit organization that offers wellness retreats for cancer patients. In 2020, forced into a virtual format by the pandemic, we were able to add additional studio partners across the US and to connect everyone via Zoom, which served to enhance the sense of community and camaraderie I had hoped to build. Each of three virtual mat sessions (Restorative, Intermediate, and Advanced) featured a Survivor Instructor who also shared a little bit about how Pilates helped her through her breast cancer journey. I’m grateful to Dorothy Stewart of Pilates of Dallas, Amanda Ross of The Pilates Project in NJ, and Jennifer DeLuca of Bodytonic in Brooklyn for sharing their teaching expertise as well as their poignant stories of strength and survivorship through Pilates.

Teasers For Tatas continues to grow and is taking place virtually again this year on October 10, 2021. It’s a fundraiser of course, but more importantly, it’s a celebration of strength and rejuvenation, of community and support, and of feeling good inside one’s body, along with an acknowledgment that we should never take that for granted. If you’d like to join us for this celebration of Pilates and perseverance, visit teasersfortatas.org to register. If your studio would like to join us in promoting TFT in your community, or if you are or know a Survivor Instructor who would like to teach for TFT next year, email me at mmiles@teasersfortatas.org.

Melissa Miles has been teaching Classical Pilates since 2009. She completed her Comprehensive Certification at Power Pilates under the tutelage of the late Pilates elder, Bob Liekens, and master trainer, Susan Moran. She has taught at various NYC studios including Power Pilates, ZenGirl Fitness, Grasshopper Pilates, The Pilates Boutique, and Real Pilates, where she is currently a Senior Instructor. Melissa is endlessly amazed at the ability of Pilates to transform all bodies, from elite athletes to those recovering from debilitating illness and injury, and everyone in between.

She is also a Holistic Health Coach, certified by the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in 2010. She coaches individual clients as well as corporate groups on the successful implementation of Lifestyle Modification.

Melissa is the Founder and Program Director of Teasers For Tatas, an annual Pilates benefit to support wellness services for breast cancer patients. She is also the Pilates instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Dubin Breast Center.