A yoga teacher reflects on her passage through the illness millions of women face each year.
My doctor’s words were simple: “There’s something there, and I think it should come out.” At that moment, my world started to crumble.
My mother had died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 54. I knew I was high risk. On my 47th birthday, when the thought crossed my mind that I was about the same age as mother had been when she developed cancer, I had congratulated myself on another milestone safely passed. A vegetarian and a yoga teacher, I used a whole medley of healing modalities: bodywork, martial arts, Chinese medicine, homeopathy, psychotherapy, astrology, and more. I had never felt better.
But four months later, a routine mammogram uncovered two small lumps in my right breast. Faced with a biopsy – a four-by-four inch chunk sliced out of my breast – I felt certain this happened to enable me to face head-on the unacknowledged fears lurking below the surface of my conscious mind. Surrounded holistic healers, I “knew” that diseases like cancer show up in a person’s energy field before they manifest physically. If I had cancer, I was sure that I – or one of my healers – would have seen it coming. Despite my shock and confusion, I went into the biopsy confident I didn’t have cancer.
I was wrong.
On the Monday morning that my surgeon called to tell me the tumors were malignant, my self-esteem and self-image fractured. Had my optimism been wishful thinking? Denial? In my moments of deepest clarity, I had been in error. My confidence in my own insight and intuition was deeply shaken.
Reeling from the diagnosis, I met with my surgeon, a longtime family friend, later that afternoon. My partner, my father, and one of my sisters (the latter two are both doctors) were all with me. I knew I would need all the support possible to manage that interview.
Still in shock, I needed all my focus simply to absorb the information. I had two small tumors, both malignant. The biopsy “specimen” – a piece of me – contained “microcalcifications”, which I understood as cancer seeds, extending to the edges of the sample. Simply put: there might be more.
I had two choices. The surgeon could remove a larger lump and hope to get “clear margins” – an area at the edge of the sample with no microcalcifications. This further surgery would be followed by radiation and would leave my breast “significantly deformed”. My other option was to have a mastectomy. I could take two or three months to decide, because the tumors were small and not very aggressive.
As we left the hospital and walked back to the car, my father gave me two gifts. First, he said: “It’s a testimony to genetic predisposition that with everything you have done, this still happened”. Hearing his deep affirmation of my unorthodox lifestyle and career, I was also freed of the “New Age Guilt Trip”: the idea that I had created this cancer.
On the whole, I was spared that kind of blaming. There were, of course, a few people who felt compelled to attribute my cancer to causes ranging from the stress of moving my studio to fear absorbed from my mother. One casual acquaintance with three months’ involvement in holistic healing told me I didn’t have to have cancer if I didn’t want to.
For my part, I wanted to put all my energy into healing and had no interest in questioning why this happened. One helpful comment was: “You never know what life has in store for you, or why.” I heard one speaker conclude that cancer was one of his tasks in this life. The same felt true for me.
My father’s second gift came as he, somewhat hesitantly, recommended a mastectomy. The image of my mother rose before me. At her death, she had no breasts and no uterus: a devastating image of the feminine. I nearly wept with gratitude to hear him say: “But she was no less a woman.”
Choosing a Treatment
While I made the decision within a few days about the treatment to pursue, the feeling that I had as much time as I wanted helped enormously. The balance between head and heart, adult and child, body and intellect – so difficult to maintain at the best of times – is crucial at a time when irrevocable decisions need to be made while riding an emotional roller coaster of shock, fear, anxiety, and terror.
Twenty years of consistent yoga practice enabled me to continue asana and pranayama practice through this period. I did as many backbends as I could, knowing that it might be a long time before I could do them again. My practice had taught me that it is possible to reach a quiet corner, a place of inner knowing, and that I should not make any decisions until I had reached that place. When I reached it I would know what to do.
The conflict I expected between allopathic and alternative practitioners didn’t arise. The surgeon had recommended surgery, as one might expect. But so did my traditional Chinese doctor, my naturopath, and many others. The essence of the advice was consistent: get rid of the cancer, and then work on the systemic, emotional, and spiritual healing.
I was uncomfortable with the thought of radiation and aware that a further lumpectomy might still not be sufficient. At best, I would be left with a “significantly deformed” breast, assaulted with radiation. What was I holding on to? Grateful that my limbs would still be intact, I decided to have a mastectomy.
Seeing women walk the streets in casual spring clothing, I found myself obsessed with breasts – and consumed with jealousy of all women who had two. (Of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, we don’t actually know how many of them really do have two.) I spoke to my breast, fondled it, said goodbye, and cried. A friend organized a little breast party and wished me “Breast Wishes”.
With uncharacteristic openness, I had told all my classes that I was going to have a breast biopsy. Now I had to tell them I had cancer. Throughout this period and for months after the surgery, I felt surrounded by unconditional love and support. In my terror, I found myself falling into a black hole, but, even at the worst times, the black hole was surrounded by a circle of light. There were so many people available to me that I didn’t feel dependant on any particular one, and I felt no resentment toward anyone who felt unable to be there for me.
The hospital where I had the operation was a large factory-like teaching institution in downtown Toronto. But I was repeatedly surprised and impressed with the level of care and compassion that came forth in such an impersonal context – from the mammogram technician who put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, the nurse who said, “God will watch over you” as I was wheeled to the operating room, to the resident who held my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me everything would be OK as they administered the anesthetic.
The operation plunged me into a meditation on death. Doing everything I could to promote my own healing, I was also aware that my life was not in my own hands.
Dying young had not been in my game plan. I am a student of Vanda Scaravelli, who was in her mid-80s. I had told all of my yoga classes that one of the great gifts of yoga is that you can go on practicing and improving regardless of age. A few years before, when I worked briefly with a young man dying of bone cancer, I had realized that my inspirational patter about “you can go on doing yoga into your 80s” wouldn’t go very far with someone dying at the age of 22. But it still didn’t cross my mind that I might be fated for an early death myself.
I had read in the classical yoga texts that fear of death and attachment to life are among the obstacles to full Self-realization. Now I knew that fear fully. I was, and am, very attached to living.
I talked with a Buddhist friend and named the terror: “I’m afraid I’m going to die”. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “You are going to die. What you don’t know is when.” That fundamental truth was surprisingly calming, much more so than reassurances that “Everything will be OK.”
I believed that I had only a short time to live – for no reason, the figure two years came to my mind (which proved to be another mistake). So I found out what was really important to me. Teaching yoga was at the top of the list. Teaching helped me carry on being myself, between visits to medical doctors, alternative healers, and therapists. In addition to my regular classes, I gave a weekend retreat two weeks before the mastectomy and began some gentle teaching three weeks afterwards.
At that stage, teaching an hour of simple breathing and relaxation left me too tired to manage the 15-minute walk home. The exhaustion that followed my mastectomy was a lesson in priorities. With limited energy, I became an expert in time management, asking myself constantly: “Is what I’m doing right now really important?” “Is this what I really want to be doing?”
Healing Through Yoga
People often ask me whether I was concerned that the stimulus of practice might contribute to the spread of my cancer. Obviously I cannot give medical advice. Anyone working with her own cancer or a student’s should consult a doctor or health care practitioner. However, faced with my own diagnosis, I never considered not practicing.
All of the excuses I had always found to postpone my practice – “Just one phone call, and then I’ll start” – dropped away as I committed myself to my own healing. I did backbends at 3:00 a.m. in the hospital before both operations, and gentle forward bends within a week after. Being quite curled up anyhow, I found to my surprise that I could also do a (very) modified plow.
The six months of exhaustion that followed the mastectomy meant that many, many hours of my practice were spent in Savasana (Corpse Pose). I was forced to practice what I preach: “Take time, breathe, unwind, let go.”
Rebuilding my asana practice has been vastly more difficult than I anticipated. I began yoga in my 20s and was both dedicated and flexible. I had always been able to “do” the poses, and do them well. Suddenly I was barely able to do the poses I teach in the first beginners’ class.
Four and a half years later, I still struggle with periods of despair in my yoga practice. The restrictions created by the scar tissue, the changes in my body that have come with menopause, and a relentless stream of blocks and fears that emerge as I struggle to listen to my own body and find my own path – all have combined to create long periods of frustration and hopelessness. It’s easy to preach that yoga isn’t competitive and that it’s not about looking like a picture in a book. But I have been in tears looking at the cover of my own book and wondering if I will ever do that pose as well again.
In rare moments of clarity, I am able to be in the present, let go of the images that I hold from the past, and open myself to the truth: that I don’t know how I will look or feel as the healing continues and my practice unfolds.
Caring for myself remains my highest priority, motivated as much by fear as self-love. My diet is better, my practice more extended and consistent. I take more holidays, and have “re-structured” my studio so that I have fewer day –to-day responsibilities.
For the past two years, I have been teaching a small class of breast cancer patients. Being with them keeps me open to my own experience and vulnerability. In a TV interview during breast cancer awareness month, I was asked what advice I had for the viewers. I found myself saying what we all know and yet is a constant challenge to put into practice: “Live your life now.”
Friedeberger, Julie, A Visible Wound (Elements Books, 1996).
Metzger, Deena, Tree: Essays and Pieces (North Atlantic Books, 1997).
Esther Myers has been practicing and teaching yoga for over 20 years. Her main influence is Vanda Scaravelli, with whom she studied for over 10 years. She is the author of Yoga & You, and produced the videos Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga and Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors.