On November 25th, 2019, I received the phone call no-one ever wants to receive. My youngest son had arrived home from his first semester at Boston College and I was informed the morning he arrived that I had invasive lobular breast cancer. What the hell is that??
Cancer was not at all in my “repertoire of me” on any day and certainly not last November as I had just wrapped up leading a group of students in a 3-day mind, body, and spirit cleanses with vegan food, juices, yoga, meditation, and self-reflection. I talked about the importance of weaving all 3 aspects of your health together for total body, mind, and spirit wellness. As life would have it, my journey as a cancer patient began; appointments were made and calls for help from my spiritual pals and family were placed – I moved into action!
The fear that gripped me was like nothing I have ever experienced; my breath was shallow, and my chest was tight. I reached out for help and graciously received it, however, I didn’t want to talk about what was going on. I was too wrapped in fear as my husband, my sister and I started the path of fact-finding. They were extremely supportive and came to every doctor appointment with me.
My husband woke in the morning and asked me where my mind was all night and I purged my crazy, fear-based projections as well as absolute confusion as to what treatment plan to pursue. He would come home from work at the end of the day and we would replay my same thoughts and fears. Who knew there were so many different forms of breast cancer, each person’s cancer has unique characteristics and in my case, I was given options. They assured me that options are a good thing! I felt like, seriously, you are the doctor, you have the training….tell me what to do because I am scared to death and have no idea what to do!!!
This is where my background in yoga and mediation came in. As I had said my breath was shallow and my chest was tight. In addition, my mind was on an overdrive constant loop of what was happening and what I was supposed to do. I am forever grateful that I had a daily habit put in place many years ago starting my day with readings, yoga, prayers, and meditation. At this time, I also added morning journaling as well as a daily bedtime practice of writing and purging my fears, praying, and listening to meditations to try to go to sleep. I am not sure how I would have survived that first month or so of fearful appointments and 2 surgeries. For me I had a lumpectomy pretty quickly to remove the cancer, however, that wasn’t enough.
The surgery didn’t come back with clear margins around detected cancer so I needed to go back to the decision drawing board. To further complicate matters, I have a BRCA2 mutation, which is identical to my mom’s and she is an ovarian cancer survivor of 25 years. Therefore, the doctors started hinting at a double mastectomy course of action for me, which was a big leap from the initial stage 0, easy lumpectomy. Now I was stage 2B with genetic factors further complicating my decisions.
Each day I started off on my meditation cushion praying, meditating, writing, listening, and then moving on my mat – trying to come up with the right answer as to what to do next. Would it be another lumpectomy or a double mastectomy? And of course, all the doctors sounded like I had pulled a fire alarm when they heard about the gene and my mom’s cancer. It became a non-negotiable decision to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes in order to prevent ovarian cancer, which is a very hard cancer to detect in its early stages. The answers didn’t come, the fear and confusion persisted, but I persisted as well. I spoke to safe people, but I couldn’t rehash it with many, it was too agitating. I meditated, wrote in my journal, prayed, and did my yoga practice – I didn’t give up, I couldn’t. I had these tools ingrained in me for many years and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that to continue each day I had to first take care of myself. They say what you do first thing in the morning sets you up for your day. I believe this is true so I kept at it daily and ended my day with all my rituals to try to get a restful sleep.
Two days before Christmas, my husband and I went to an appointment with the medical oncologist, this was the appointment that would tell me if I needed chemotherapy as well as surgery. I came very close to canceling this appointment as I woke up that morning saying, forget it, I just want to enjoy my husband and boys being together and I don’t want any more information. I really didn’t want to hear the answer, I wanted it to all go away until after Christmas. Thank God I showed up and heard the good news of not needing chemotherapy and my oncologist was very helpful in providing me information about the benefits of a double mastectomy.
We went home and had a family meeting – my husband, myself, and my 3 boys ranging from 19 to 23 – we talked about mom’s breasts, ugh! Altogether we concluded that I should go with the double mastectomy and when they did the reconstruction surgery I would have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed at the same time. This was an awful lot for me to absorb as just a month and a half prior, I was a healthy 53-year old woman leading physical, emotional, and spiritual cleanses, teaching yoga, meditating, eating well, and not drinking alcohol. My mind could quickly go to this isn’t fair, why is this happening to me? My body has betrayed me, if this can happen to me then what else can happen in my body? I basically was given a hard lesson in letting go and surrendering to the fact that I had absolutely no control over this – it was nothing I did or didn’t do, it just happened. Well, that’s a scary place for someone like me to be, as I liked to think I had some control over my health and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at living healthy.
In my yoga practice, writing and prayer, and meditation time, I was able to see clearly that I had to move to a new level of trust in my spiritual being. In my case, it is a religious version of my Catholic God, but it also took the form of the Good Orderly Direction in the unfolding of my life, the Great Out Doors, and many kundalini yoga chants and mantras. This is very unique to everyone, it doesn’t need to be spiritual or religious, all we really need to do is find a connection with something bigger than ourselves that we can rely on, so we can release some of the burden and fears of self-reliance. This put me in a difficult position that I had never been in before. Usually when I am not trusting and am in fear and worry it is because I am in self-reliance – I’ve got this, I can handle it, I can figure it out, no problem. Well I had no faith in myself – I thought I was doing all the “right” things to stay healthy and I was not in trust of the Good Orderly Direction of my life – so where did that leave me….confused, scared and flummoxed! I needed to continue with my yoga and mediation to remain sane!
I had my surgery in January of this year and continued on a daily basis to do all I knew how to do, even if I was still in fear. I meditated every day and tried to quiet my mind. The recovery was difficult, but with lots of support, I got through and then had to plan the hopefully final surgery for reconstruction and removal. I had a great plan….the surgeries would fall directly in between our amazing family wedding in California and my middle son’s graduation from Wake Forest. With this plan, I would be free to fly for both occasions and wouldn’t have any physical restrictions. March 12th, I went for my pre-surgery appointments in NYC and was all set to go, and then as we all know, the world shut down! Once again I was shown my plans and designs are not playing out, my surgeries were postponed, I had to wait! I am not a very patient person once I get into action it’s just that…action! Let’s get this done!!
March 12th I drove to our beach house in RI and my husband and 3 boys joined me for the next few months of COVID. I heard nothing from my doctors about my surgery until the end of May, they wanted me to come in on June 19th. This was not my plan! I wanted to be done with all of this by the time summer hit. Now, I considered postponing until September so I could enjoy the summer in my special place. Once again, I moved on my mat and hit my meditation cushion, and got quiet – I chose to go ahead with the surgery. From March 12th to this phone call I had been moving in overdrive – shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and repeat day after day for my family, life was very busy. Once I had the surgery date I stopped all of that. I spent my days doing yoga, meditating, praying, reading, walking with friends, and building up my strength for surgery. All went well with the surgeries and as I recovered I returned to my focus of self-care. It is important to note that my self-care involves my mental, emotional, and spiritual self, so I needed a lot of time to sit and be quiet. Also, I couldn’t practice yoga, so I needed to gain mental clarity and sanity in stillness. I am so grateful that I had developed strong habits of total self-care prior to my cancer diagnosis and year of treatment. I always knew it was important, but when life throws you major curveballs like this, I learned that my default was to work harder at my mediation practice and for that, I am forever grateful.
It is now November 2020 and as I write this it is exactly the week that I received the diagnosis. Through this writing, I realize there is a reason for everything, and even though my mind can go to the place of “why me”, continuing my daily yoga and meditation practice I give myself the option to choose again and for today I choose gratitude for where I am now, for my family, my health and the opportunity to possibly give others hope through my experience.
Furthermore, today I am 8 days into a 14-day post COVID exposure quarantine and I am using my mediation and yoga once again to calm my mind and to hopefully boost my immunity system and keep my lungs clear with conscious breath. The mantra I am repeating is…..Today I choose to trust we are healthy and all is well!!!!