FULL STORY: Wounds that Heal
On Friday, April 13, 2012, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
I survived the treatments for breast cancer.
The chemotherapy, the mastectomy, and the radiation treatments just about killed me. They call me a survivor. Did I survive breast cancer? I have no idea. No one ever knows if cancer is growing within them – that’s the scary part. The fear of cancer can be immobilizing. How we choose to deal with that fear is a personal choice, but some people don’t believe they have a choice at all. This makes me sad.
I have chosen to confront my fears about cancer and death. I do not want to cover up what happened to me with reconstructive surgery or by wearing a prosthesis. I do not want to forget the insights I had while under the influence of chemotherapy drugs.
Today there is growing interest in ayahuasca, an herb that grows in the Amazon and has strong hallucinogenic properties. It’s prepared as a tea infusion and is taken as part of a ceremony with a shaman. During the ceremony many people say they journey into experiences of death and release.
Undergoing chemotherapy is like that. I felt like I was dying. In reality, I was. Trillions of cells are killed in the course of a few hours. It felt like death was just around the corner.
When we feel fear a chemical cascade of drugs is released into our nervous systems. Unless we have the ability to override the “fear program” hard-wired into our brains, we will desperately try to run away from the fear to avoid dealing with the terrible feeling we perceive in our bodies.
Having done yoga for 35 years, I have trained myself to feel every little part of my body. There was no running away for me.
I was fully immersed in the experience of dying while undergoing treatments. A couple of months after my last radiation treatment a friend, Stephanie Bonas, came over to take some photos. My hair was just beginning to grow back, my scar and radiation burns had healed over. During the photoshoot I pulled my top down and exposed my scar. My friend took some shots. I had no idea at the time what would become of those images.
WATCH: Breast Cancer survivor, Diane Bruni talks about the consequences of her brush with death and how she confronted it with a bold choice.
My scar is a living testament to what I, and countless other women, must endure in order to survive. In that moment, I felt both sad and jubilant. I hope that my willingness to share my story will help others feel they can be open about their own stories.
Yoga teaches us that our bodies are only temporary vessels that we inhabit for a short time. We become attached to having our bodies function and look a certain a way even though every day, when we look in the mirror, we can literally see ourselves getting old. Having a breast removed is a reminder of our impermanence, a reminder to live life today as if there were no tomorrow.
Why would I want to cover up, with reconstructive surgery or a prosthesis, with one of the most important lessons of my life? So in my everyday life I do not wear a prosthesis and I have no intention of having a fake breast installed. I am learning to love my new body, to take good care of the scar. I give myself daily massages with a lymph brush. I roll around on a big exercise ball to massage my body and keep the fluids flowing. I visualize new pathways emerging in my body that carry fluid and replace old vessels that scared over where my lymph nodes were removed.
The body’s magical healing capacity has been summoned into action.
I plan on teaching workshops for women who have had mastectomies. There are many highly effective self care techniques that prevent lymphedema, a common and debilitating condition that can arise in the wake of surgery.
Having cancer gave me tremendous courage to confront my life and change what was no longer serving me. Life changing events such as serious illness or the loss of a loved one can catapult a person into radical aliveness.
I was co-founder and co-owner of the most popular yoga studio in the country, Downward Dog Yoga Centre. Thankfully, my business partner bought my shares and set me free. The name of my new studio is 80 Gladstone Yoga and MovementSpace. It is a reflection of 35 years of a life dedicated to the practice of yoga and to the work on assisting others along their journey towards wellness.
I’m fascinated by the intense strength and courage I had while I was undergoing treatments. I wonder why some people can have their greatest revelations during times of distress and fear. Why are some people able to harness the energy of terror as a means of transformation?
There is an inherent power that comes when you confront your worst fear. Confronting death can be the most empowering experience of a lifetime.