What an honor to be asked to share my yoga journey with you! I am actually new to yoga, but in the short amount of time I have been practicing, I have fallen completely in love with it. And I have also fallen in love with my Yoga Squared family and feel beyond grateful that this is where I landed! I tend to be a bit of a private person, but this practice has become such a huge and inspirational part of my life, I'm happy to share how yoga has helped me accept and work through a pretty challenging time. I apologize-- although my time practicing yoga is relatively short, the story that goes along with it is long.
It is very fitting to be sharing my story this month, in May. As last May, 2016, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, at 31 years of age. Even writing about it now, I still feel like there aren't words to describe my feelings at hearing that news. On a quick weekend trip last April, I noticed a slight dimpling in my right breast. Within a month's time, that dimple grew into an aggressive 10cm tumor. On the day that I had a mammogram, the physician told me, “Your life is about to change very quickly.” And she couldn't have been more right.
Within a few weeks, I had a series of scans, a multitude of doctors appointments, blood work, two separate biopsies, and genetic counseling. It was determined that I have a genetic mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which increases a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer up to to 87%. This gene also has a high risk for recurrence of breast cancer, high risk for development of ovarian cancer, and increased risk for development of several other types of cancer. My long fight against cancer started with chemotherapy in June. My 20th and final round of “hard” chemo was completed at the end of October. I let my body and immune system recover for a few weeks, then had surgery to remove the remaining cancer in November. Along with removing the right breast, I had my left breast and both ovaries removed preventatively as well, due to the high risk of recurrence or development of new cancer. I started radiation therapy in January and completed 30 rounds at the end of February. I continue to get preventative chemo-type infusions every three weeks, which will finish this coming August.
I struggled with how to tell my loved ones, especially my 8 year old son, Ethan, what was happening to me. Fortunately, I have been blessed with an amazing boyfriend, Dave, wonderful parents, and extremely supportive friends and coworkers that have cheered me on and carried me every step of the way. But there are some things that my family and friends couldn't do or fix for me- the internal mental and emotional battle that cancer brings. Like how to deal with reading about and being told my statistical likelihood of survival over the next FIVE years. Or how within two weeks of being diagnosed, I had to make a decision about whether to postpone chemo in order to harvest eggs for future chance of pregnancy, or to start chemo right away. Or how by the end of July, I had lost every last hair on my head and could no longer hide my diagnosis. Or how after surgery, I wasn't sure I was even a woman anymore, having lost both of my breasts and ovaries. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I don't even recognize the person staring back at me. Or feeling like for someone who strives to be organized and in control, I have lost control of not only my own body, but my life. And finally, worrying every single day that the cancer has returned; that every headache/cough/general symptom means we missed something and the cancer has spread.
This is where yoga enters my story. Immediately following surgery, I started physical therapy to regain range of motion in my arms from the breast and lymph node removal. I had played with the idea of yoga through home DVDs in the past, and thought trying out a yoga class might help with recovery. I took a seven week session at the YMCA starting in January, then was introduced to Yoga Squared in February by a friend who had recently joined (hey Casey!). Dave very graciously attended a couples yoga class with me led by Kevin and Gwendolyn, and I knew immediately I liked the studio. The following Monday I attended a 5:30am class with Nikki, and was hooked.
There are so many parallels between yoga practice and life. And the journey on my mat has helped me truly understand, accept, and get through the emotions of the past year better than any therapy session or antidepressant ever could. Prior to cancer, running was my choice of stress relief. I vividly remember attempting a run during my months of chemo, and sitting on the side of the trail crying after my body started shutting down a half a mile in. I was furious at body, furious at myself, and furious at life. But at yoga, Nikki frequently encourages self-compassion and self-gratitude. And slowly, I have learned to acknowledge that my body has been working hard over the past year, and I should thank it, not be angry. Every day I get physically stronger, I notice poses getting a little bit easier. But every day I also get mentally stronger, and notice that the anxiety and stress get a little bit easier. Like yoga, life is a journey where we have good days and bad days. Some days we strive toward our edge and other days we need to rest and restore. I don't have to be perfect. If I stumble, it's just an opportunity to get back up and try again. If things are hard, I can focus on my breath to get through it.
Yoga is also teaching me self-acceptance. After surgery, I spent a lot of time focused on the outside of me. The lack of hair. The lack of breasts. The scars. I wondered what other people must think when they see me. But with yoga, I spend so much more time thinking about what's on the inside. I am figuring out who the new me is. Im transitioning from the “girl with cancer” to the “girl who does yoga.” And that makes me happy. I find comfort in knowing I am doing everything I can to reduce my stress level, and take care of my mind and body.
Shavasana is my favorite part of practice, as it forces me to keep my mind in the present. I have a mantra that frequently runs through my mind during this time: “I am strong. I will fight. I will live”. All through treatment I have thought I have to live for Ethan and Dave and my parents. Then one morning during shavasana this crazy thought popped into my head: I also have to live for myself. I am also important. Previously in life, I have felt so guilty doing anything solely for myself. But yoga is teaching me it is okay to take time to get to know yourself too. Life is short. Do something that makes you happy, too. And by spending a little time on myself, I am finding I have a whole lot more inside to give back to others.
Finally, every morning, Nikki asks us to set an intention for ourselves and for our practice. And every morning I set my intention on loving myself, accepting myself, staying positive, and taking life one day at a time. Being present is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to others. And when I'm on my mat, I don't have to dwell on the challenges of the past year, or worry about what the future might hold. I just have to worry about the next breath in, and the next breath out.