between two breaths

Observe your life, between two breaths.
Breath is a wind, both coming and going.
On this wind you have built your life-
but how will a castle rest on a cloud?

Avicenna

Lately I’ve been catching myself feeling the indentation of my mastectomy scars. This is less of a voluntary, thought-filled experience, and more of an unconscious exploration of a part of my body I’d felt disconnected from for some time; not unlike the way a tongue unconsciously makes its way to the opening where a tooth used to be- a way of filling a gap and soothing an empty space without focusing so much on the need for a new tooth. No matter how many times I’ve attempted to intentionally touch my scars or to look at my naked body in the mirror, it’s often felt forced and like looking at foreign territory- like this altered body isn’t quite mine (and in the big, spiritual picture, maybe it’s not….). Somehow, my hand has proven to be more competent at doing the work of exploring my scars without the complication of connecting to my brain.

If I think of cancer and the surgery and treatments as a rebirth rather than as a traumatic series of events that happened to me, then this time, just over three years from my diagnosis, is my cancer toddlerhood. I’m still learning how to fully engage in this body. I’m still exploring an altogether new landscape….and being in a yoga teacher practicum has forced me to push into that terrain and to engage parts of myself that I had buried years ago.

For nearly a year after undergoing a bi-lateral mastectomy, I wasn’t able to practice vigorous asana flow. I relied instead on dance as my physical practice. Dancing was wonderful and healing, especially in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, yet I missed engaging my upper body muscles and experiencing the meditative quality of flowing through sun salutations at rhythm with my breath. As I was able to reach and stretch and put more weight onto my arms, I slowly re-engaged with yoga.

My post treatment yoga practice started with floor poses and transitioned into standing poses at the rate a baby would learn to move from crawling to walking. In class, I often had the urge to squeal with joy for the ability to feel my body engaging in practice. My joy and the occasional moments of frustration have been reminders that this body of mine is ever changing, despite cancer and all of the cancer related issues that I’ve experienced.

Now, I take pure pleasure in noticing the quality of my breath in practice. I’m enjoying the ways my body has been feeling stronger and more physically capable of holding poses I’ve struggled with since recommitting to my practice. This is your body on truth, I continually tell myself. I can’t be anyone else. I will never be stronger or more beautiful than I am in this moment. Or the next. I am fine with where I am- Santosha- which is quite fabulous, when I consider the alternatives.

still standing…one year post diagnosis

The anniversary of my cancer diagnosis passed with little to no fanfare, despite the fact that I spent a good portion of the day reminiscing over the past year and looking at the photos of myself nervously posing topless on the beach. July, 2008 will most likely always be a time that I will be able to recall and to react to on a visceral level. I can bring up the smells and sounds of the day I was diagnosed, but I can’t even remember what I had for dinner yesterday. Probably an exaggeration, but not far off…

I can remember distinctly the feeling I had when the radiologist called me personally to tell me that I should contact a medical oncologist and a surgeon right away. I told him that I would begin the process on Monday, as it was Friday afternoon, and he urged me to begin making calls as soon as I hung up with him. I was stunned and distracted, thinking that I couldn’t possibly have such a diagnosis, and that if I did, in fact, have breast cancer, that I had no time for it. I thanked him for being so kind as to call me personally, and he asked several times if I was going to be alright. I wanted to ask him the same question. I had no idea what the future held. I still don’t. But I knew at the time that I had resolve and that I was going to begin the process of healing before people saw me as sick.

Now, a year later, I am still a bit stunned at the magnitude of it all, but I am also quite amazed at how naturally life takes on a new normal. At this point, I’m used to periodic infusions and scans, and dressing to hide my scars and the port that remains until I finish treatments. I am usually careful about what I put into, onto, and around my body, and I am skeptical of more than I ever was before. I recognize bullshit from a mile away.

My body is still not back to the vibrant and energetic state that it was at last summer, and I question whether it ever will be. Cancer has in some ways motivated me, and in others, has taught me to respect the fact that perfection is overrated and unobtainable. It’s ok to slow down and to enjoy sitting in the garden sometimes, even if it’s been days since my heart has experienced aerobic exercise.

Although I’m still working full time and I’m back to taking a full course load at school, I no longer feel the necessity to keep up a frenzied pace. I don’t have the capacity for the stress that I had before, and I recognize the importance of enjoying the ride and learning along the way. I want to feel into my days and to experience each moment for what it is rather than racing through to see how much I can accomplish.

Even the mirror reflects my changing self, complete with my short, curly hair, which is filling in quite nicely. I still admittedly feel like I look like an adolescent boy on occasion due to my lack of a chest, but I attempt to radiate my sassy feminine qualities, and to remember that my scars are proof of what I’m capable of; a badge of honor. Imperfection is a sign of strength and uniqueness, and in some ways, my differences give me more courage than I’ve had before. Like a warrior, I have gained clarity through my experience

boobs not bombs

It’s been nearly 2 months since I had my final chemo infusion, and since that time life has attempted to take on a new normal. Despite the fact that I have had 2 Herceptin infusions and an EKG, I rarely think about treatment. I do, however, think about cancer nearly every day. I think about the fact that the anniversary of me finding the lump is coming up, and the fact that I continue to struggle to recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I also consider the fears that cancer can bring up in other people, and the reality that it will follow me the rest of my life (as in, I am now officially a risk to insurance providers). On the positive side, I am beginning to witness the growth of my nails, with new healthy pink starts. My hair is finally getting fuller, and for the first time since beginning chemo, I luxuriated in a bath and shaved my legs. These small gifts do not go unrecognized- the gifts of newness and health, of hope and regeneration.

I continue my struggles believing in Western medicine, procrastinating the day that I will begin the Tamoxifen, which is supposed to lessen my risk of a recurrence. I hate the idea of more side effects. My energy level is increasing, the hot flashes have subsided, and my taste buds are on fire! Thinking about taking a medicine that could hamper my “normal” infuriates me. Though not as much as thinking about the fact that my body has failed me. Not a day goes by when I don’t consider how I could have avoided cancer, or how I can reduce my chances now, but it wouldn’t be in my nature not to question whatever would be considered authority.

Today, my family is walking in the Spokane Breast Cancer Walk in my honor. I envision a sea of pink shirts and baseball caps, thousands of pink ribbons, tears, and laughter. I never would have expected to be so moved by such a gesture, considering the fact that I continue to be annoyed by pink ribbons, however I am touched by the idea that my cancer has made people in my life think about other people’s cancer- that there will be more money toward funding research, and that the women that I care about will think about breast self-examinations and mammograms. So- a big cheer for my family, and for everyone who walks to honor anything. It’s not just breast cancer that we’re fighting for, but equality in healthcare. Until we have that, those stinking pink ribbons will be everywhere as a reminder that women are dying every day from a very diagnosable and treatable disease. So- “BOOBS NOT BOMBS”! Get those walking shoes on, and join me in Seattle on June 7th, where I intend to run, not walk, the 5k and to smile every step of the way in honor of the truly miraculous people who have supported me every step of the way since I was diagnosed.

the not-so-naked truth

I stood on the deck of the ferry today and stuck my head out into the cold wind just to feel the rain against my cheeks. I had every expectation that I should be blessed with an orca sighting, which didn’t happen, though I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of the wind whipping salty water at me as I took in the sights of the San Juan islands. It seemed fitting that my first weekend without chemo would would be one filled with icy rain, wind, and a power outage. Because of the extreme weather, Irene and I were forced to rest more and to think of creative ways to enjoy our celebratory weekend on Orcas Island. It was fantastic.

Doe Bay Resort was a good place to land as we marked our first official infusion free Friday. The  sun was actually shining at the very time I would have been receiving my chemotherapy a week before, and I honored that moment by bowing toward the water and smiling at the sky. I didn’t feel any need for more than that- just a simple acknowledgement of my gratitude for the end of one leg of my journey. We then checked in and made house in the cutest little cabin we could have hoped for. Our cabin, “Churi”, was nessled under some trees and sat just above a meadow where we were graced by the presence of a local cat and a heard of deer. It was perfect.

Saturday, the day of the soon to be infamous Orcas Island power outage, Irene and I braved the elements to hike in the muddy but gorgeous Moran State Park. When we returned to the cabin (which had power by this time), I decided I was ready to exerience the soaking tubs and sauna while Irene napped. I packed my bag with 2 towels and a bottle of water and made my way through the meadow to the tubs. My hope was that the stormy weather would keep most people in their cozy cabins. Even so, I believed I could be open and loving toward my body and that I was ready to sit in the hot mineral water regardless of who was there. When I arrived, the tubs were filled with young naked couples. Undaunted (yet), I prudishly undressed in the shower, and wrapped my towel (tightly) around my very flat chest (or lack thereof). I walked within 2 feet of the tubs and all of my courage melted. I made a beeline for the sauna in hopes that it would be empty. When I walked in, there was a young naked man sitting in a meditative lotus posture on his towel. I sat as far away from him as I could and decided that I would make the best of my experience by resting in the heat. As I sat there, I realized that I was (am) not even close to being ready to exposing my scars in public. I had no idea what a visceral reaction I would have to being around whole bodied people enjoying an evening of nude bliss, and it was painful to recognize what I can only describe as envy for their wholeness and grief for what I am so obviously lacking.

To be completely honest, I don’t think I would have been prepared to sit in a tub with naked strangers prior to my surgery. My hope was that I had become wiser and emotionally stronger since surgery and undergoing five months of chemotherapy. I truly believed that I had come to a place where I didn’t care what other people thought of my appearance, and that I could be a beautiful representation of a self confident breast cancer survivor. I also hoped that I could return home from our weekend at Doe Bay victorious in my bravery. Despite the fact that I couldn’t disrope to enter the tubs, I still feel strong and beautiful. And victorious.

could it be over?

hey there, cupcake!
hey there, cupcake!
I’m finished with chemo! And now everyone is wondering- how excited am I?!? Well, to be honest, the enthusiasm and thrill hasn’t hit yet. I don’t think it will hit until the heartburn and urpy belly goes away…and even then, it may take a while for me to fully comprehend everything that my system has had to undergo this winter. I’m pretty stunned that the main part of this treatment is over, and that I only have six more months of Herceptin treatments. I want to be able to rely on my body without questioning what kind of crazy symptom will reveal itself. I also want to be able to trust my bowels and bladder again. So, as happy as I am to have Fridays free from chemotherapy infusions, I still have trepidation about what the future holds and about my body’s ability to create vitality. For my final infusion, I donned a blue wig and tiara. Irene brought 2 dozen Trophy cupcakes (delish) and Jenn smoothly asked the main nurse to put a couple bottles of sparkling wine in the fridge until we could properly toast to the end of my chemotherapy treatments. Katie, Suza, Gol, Lena and Connie all showed up to mark the occasion and we laughed and made small talk while the last of the carboplatin and taxotere entered my blood stream. It was a truly sweet and anticlimactic evening, considering the fact that I have had nearly five months of weekly chemotherapy treatments. I don’t know what I expected- but it was strange to thank and hug the nurses goodbye before walking through the abandoned waiting room with my crew of supporters. Odd to have such a quiet end to something I dreaded so much.
celebrating after NIA!!!
celebrating after NIA!!!

bring on the cupcakes!

Nearing the end of the countdown!!! 2 days until my final chemo infusion, and then most likely a week of physical and emotional detox before I can begin feeling relatively normal. I’m trying to remember what it was like not to question my body and the ever increasing side effects of this routine, and I can only wonder whether I will take my health for granted again. Will this experience make me even more hyper-sensitive or vigilant regarding my health?

Regardless, I plan on going to my last infusion in style- blue wig and tiara, courtesy of the fabulous Reen. We will toast to the staff and celebrate with friends who have been chemo buddies throughout the 5 months of weekly visits to the infusion unit at Swedish. We will eat cupcakes and sip champagne while the last doses of taxotere and carboplatin get absorbed by my body. We will be joyous and wacky in an attempt to mark the occasion as an ending and to put it behind us.