In February 2012, I had my first-ever mammogram. At the end, the mammographer hugged me. Not surprisingly, later that week, I was called back for a breast biopsy.
During the procedure, the doctor chatted about her thyroid cancer and how women like us learn how to deal and move on. Inexpertly, she wrestled the needle around in my right breast. When she was finished, she looked down at me and declared, “This thing is ugly!”
That sentence launched my breast cancer journey.
She had successfully diminished my breast cancer to a “thing.” Depersonalized and disembodied, my breast cancer was to be feared. She instantly made me feel ashamed.
Questions swirled: What had I done so wrong that I had let a monster invade my body? I thought I was paying attention, when did this happen? How could I have let it happen? What will everyone say, knowing that I had let this happen?
In the months preceding my modified radical right breast mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, I took a medical leave from my job. I practiced a lot of yin yoga and read Thich Nhat Hanh’s You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment, given to me by a dear-heart friend—bookmarks and all—who had her own struggles with a disease.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
We must get deeply in touch with suffering to develop understanding. One day, when you are looking deeply at the nature of suffering, you will see the way that leads to transformation, to healing, to happiness; for it is precisely through touching suffering that we discover the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to healing.
Yin yoga is a quiet earthbound practice that invites you to stay and breathe in shapes for up to five minutes. Unlike a physical asana practice, yin uses gravity and time to lengthen and stretch the connective tissues. Even more importantly, a yin practice invites your mind and body to let go. To befriended suffering.
In my yin practice, I focused on transforming my “ugly thing” into a beautiful part of me. Instead of feeling ashamed and afraid, I knew I needed to reclaim my body and mind, to see my cancer as part of my fraying cell fabric.
- I trained my awareness to my breath. Every time my mind wandered in the field of fear, shame, and anxiety, I gently reminded it to return to focus on my deep inhales and exhales. Over and over. And over again.
- Jokingly, I nicknamed and imagined my breast cancer filled with gum-smacking brashness and eye-rolling brazenness.
- I thanked my breast cancer for coming.
- I imagined being bathed in purple and orange light.
- Over time, I intentionally sent my breath to move through my cancer, transforming it into a sprawling meadow of yellow wildflowers.
Practice Makes Practice:
Living is ongoing and infinitely complex work. Each day when we “touch suffering”—allowing ourselves to be deeply grateful for our lives—we open ourselves up to healing.
I try to remind myself each day that I am here, but it is a challenge.
Suffering is everywhere and eternal. It is messy and can deplete even the strongest. I cannot stop it or control it, but I can breathe, focusing my attention on my deep inhales and exhales.
As an ongoing practice, I invite grief to shine a light on the important relationships right in front of me–with my husband and children, family and friends, body and mind.
And I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s words resounding out of his powerful yellow book:
You are here, body and mind together. You are here, alive, completely alive. That is a miracle.
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