On Friday April 13, 2012 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The tumor on my left breast was already 4 cm by 2 cm and spreading into my lymph nodes. This is my cancer story. It takes the shape of an arching back-bend looking forwards and backwards from that moment, that pivotal day.
I was in Mexico when I discovered a lump on my breast. At the time I was in peak condition, feeling better and healthier than I’d ever felt. I’m also not the type to assume the worst, especially when it comes to my own health, and yet suddenly my intuition told me that I was in for a rough ride. For two weeks–the remainder of the trip–all I could think about was how my life was about to change. I spent the time taking quiet walks on the beach and practicing yoga, and all the while living with the feeling that I might have cancer. I tired to prepare myself for the shock of my life. When I went into savasana (corpse pose), I’d allow myself to believe that I was dying, letting go to the point where coming back was a jolt to my entire system. I would come out of savasana crying, sometimes out of sadness that I might have to leave this planet sooner than expected, other times out of gratitude for all the blessings in my life. And, to my surprise, I realized that I did not have an overwhelming fear of dying, of that blissful experience that returns us to the place from where we once came. My greatest fear was saying goodbye to my family, friends, and loved ones. That fortnight in Mexico was a time of deep reflection on living and dying. Did I have regrets about the past? If I survived cancer would I change the life I was planning to live? By the end of my stay it had become clear to me that I wouldn’t change anything, that I’d been living life in accordance with my true self. I was at peace. Only I prayed for guidance and insight to help me move through this stage of life with grace and gratitude.
A few days before flying to Mexico, my husband and I bought a building on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto. The front of the building had been a Portuguese grocery store for 40 years and the rest of the building was big enough for our family and a couple of rental units. Of course neither of us knew that I had cancer when we purchased the building.
A week back from Mexico I was in my doctor’s office having my breast examined. She wrote out a requisition for an ultrasound plus a thermography test and informed me that if either test showed signs of cancer then the next step would be a mammogram. The thermography test is essentially a photograph taken with a camera capable of measuring and visualizing body temperature. The theory is that that because cancer requires its own blood flow it’s warmer than the surrounding tissues. The following day I went for an ultrasound–the more conventional diagnostic tool of the two. I watched the screen while the technician moved the probe over the lump, which looked like a very dark hole. Then she ran the probe in the direction of my armpit and I saw areas where the connective tissue looked much denser. Around the armpit itself I saw more dark holes like the lump, only smaller. When the ultrasound was done, the technician asked me to stay while she showed my test to the radiologist. While I waited I began to wonder about those “black holes” in my body. At the same time I was watching the clock because I was due at the yoga studio in an hour, scheduled to teach a workshop for which many of my students had pre-registered. The radiologist’s office was a dimly lit room at the end of a very long hallway. When I walked in I saw my ultrasound image alit on the screen. The radiologist wanted to do a mammogram and a core biopsy–immediately. He said that what he saw looked very much like cancer.
Suddenly everything I’d planned, up until that very moment, was cancelled.
The next thing I knew I had my breast pressed against two plates and the technician said, “don’t breathe”. Well, breathing is what I do to stay calm and grounded. Instead, I held my breath and I waited. As soon as the mammogram done I was then led into another small room, also very dimly lit. The doctor performing the core biopsy warned me about the loud noise I was about to hear. While he watched the screen and touched the tumor, sample tissue was taken from its core, and it sounded just like a gun going off. It was over before I knew it and as I got up from the bed I asked the doctor what he could tell me about my condition. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’d be shocked if this sample came back benign. It looks like a malignant tumor.” He advised me to talk to my doctor right away and get in line to see a surgeon and an oncologist. He told me that what I had was treatable but that I should not delay. And he wished me best of luck.
Interestingly, the thermography test came back normal.
In retrospect, I do remember noticing a difference in my breast tissue several months prior, but because I felt in the best shape of my life, and because I hadn’t found a lump, I wasn’t alarmed. A surgeon’s assistant who happened to have been a student at Downward Dog told me about a woman who’d come to see the surgeon. Her cancer had eaten away at her breast and spread into all of her organs. She was given two months to live. I mention this to emphasize that breast cancer doesn’t hurt. Sometimes the only symptom is a lump, and lots of women have non-cancerous lumps in their breasts. I’d seen my doctor seven months prior to finding a lump. She did a complete breast examine and found nothing unusual. My cancer grew very quickly. The pathology test indicated that my cancer was classified as aggressive. All this to say: regardless of how healthy you feel, examine your breasts regularly and if you notice any changes whatsoever, see your doctor immediately instead of waiting for your next scheduled appointment.
My next stop was lunch with my parents. It had all been planned beforehand and both my kids and my younger brother would be there. Everyone knew that I’d gone for an ultrasound but no one was prepared for what I was about to say. I walked in the door and right away my mother could tell that something was terribly wrong. I sat down and for the first time I said out loud, “I have a malignant tumor.” My son Marshall asked what ‘malignant’ meant and I told him it meant I had cancer. My mother asked, “why you, the healthiest eater I know?” Oh how I wish it were that simple. It was a beautiful spring day and we spent most of it in the backyard taking turns crying. At one point my daughter Kathryn and I went for a long walk in a ravine. The trees were just beginning to bud, the sun was shining so brightly, and the light had a luminous quality that left a deep impression on me. It was a dreadful day–that Friday the 13th, but it also had a magical and loving quality to it unlike any other day of my life.
On my way home that evening I dropped off Kathryn at the hospital. She was there to support her friend who was about to give birth to her first child. I thought: how strange and beautiful that it’s all happening NOW! Everywhere on the planet, at this very moment, babies are being born and people are dying. As I hugged Kathryn goodbye I was pierced by that immutable reality.
That night I tried to sleep but all I could do was cry, pace the room, walk around the block, return to my room, and cry. It felt surreal. A few times I thought I was falling asleep only to realize that I was fully lucid, leaving my body, and floating above the house into the night sky. I saw the stars, I saw the city lights below, and the next thing I knew, I was back in my body and crying again. In the morning I felt completely emptied, like a vessel without content.
All too soon the realities and practicalities of life began to dawn upon me. I had one month until moving day and in the meantime I had to finalize the real estate deal, pack up my house, find a contractor, plan a renovation, seek out a surgeon and an oncologist, etc…and all I wanted to do was to climb under a rock and prepare to die. In fact, we called our real estate agent but they advised us to not back out of the deal because of the legal implications that might haunt us for years to come. So, we had no choice but to move forward with our plans, even as our lives were changing radically by the minute. My older brother is a medical doctor and he called some colleagues to determine which doctors were most reputed in this field, and they all said: the doctors at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. While I went from one appointment to the next, getting injected with radioactive dyes and entering MRI chambers, my husband took care of the major packing and renovation planning.
Just after I found out I had cancer my friend, the super-foods guru David Wolfe, invited me to visit his property near North Bay. I went with my son, and David took us into the woods to show us what chaga looks like growing on birch trees. Chaga has been used for centuries as a medicinal mushroom. In the last 60 years in Japan, China, Norway and Sweden, it’s been researched extensively. Although David knew about chaga growing in other parts of the world, it wasn’t until he discovered it in Ontario less than a decade ago that word began to spread throughout North America. Now, due to its miraculous healing properties, chaga is quickly becoming the most sought after medicinal mushroom on the planet.
Incidentally, I was talking with a woman a few months ago just after she’d taken a class of mine at Downward Dog. It came up that she worked at Princess Margaret Hospital in charge of funding for cancer research, so I asked her if she knew about chaga. I was stunned that she’d not only heard of it (from a poster I put up at Downward Dog), she’d gone ahead and applied for funding to duplicate research studies done in other countries! It will be fascinating to follow the development of this story, and if you don’t know about chaga, I encourage you to do your own research. The findings are astounding, and it’s equally astounding that hardly any North Americans knew about our native chaga until recently. My son and I have since spent many hours in the forest harvesting the mushroom, and I drink its delicious infusion every day.
After consulting with a surgeon and an oncologist I was given the choice to do either surgery first or chemo first. It felt a bit like tossing a coin, asking my family what they thought and so on. My brother, the doctor, accompanied me to my first appointment with the surgeon. I’d just been harvesting chaga, which I considered my natural medicine, and I was feeling so great that I was seriously reconsidering chemotherapy. We were in the waiting room and prompted by my enthusiasm, my brother googled chaga. He was very impressed by what he read and he could see that I was getting even more excited by the possibility of not having to go through with chemotherapy. He turned to me and said, “Di, you’re not going to pull a Steve Jobs on us.” I knew that Steve jobs had died of cancer but I hadn’t known the details until my brother found the story online and I read the part where Steve Jobs was quoted saying that he thought magical thinking could cure him. His cancer spread, and in the end he gave into conventional treatment, but it was already too late. After reading that, I realized that I’d surrender to all conventional treatments. My brother reminded me that the survival rate for breast cancer is very high with treatment. Without treatment, cancer spreads. A yoga teacher I know was diagnosed with breast cancer and she is opting out of conventional treatment, hoping to heal herself naturally. It’s a personal choice and each of us lives with the decisions we make. I believe that education is key to making the decisions that are best for us. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I knew the treatment would be horrible but I was confident in my ability to bounce back. And I felt sure that the liter of chaga I drank daily would help my body regenerate and heal.
My father was diagnosed with lung cancer one month after my diagnosis. It was discovered during a routine x-ray. We were both in treatment at the same time. His cancer was slow-growing and treated with radiation only. It was too large a mass to remove surgically, and he was too old to endure chemotherapy. He was told that he’d probably die of something other than cancer because of its slow growth-rate. It was likely he’d been living with cancer symptom-free for many years. All cancers are different. The term ‘cancer’ itself is a broad one, used to describe hundreds of different diseases.
I did actually flip a coin and opt for chemotherapy before surgery. When I got the email from the doctor’s office with my chemotherapy dates, I was stunned to learn that my first treatment would fall on moving day. I considered changing the date but my son advised me to just go with it, and so that’s what I did. May 18th was a very curious day: I left the old house, went to Princess Margaret, received my first round of chemotherapy, and returned to a new home in the afternoon. The first night at 80 Gladstone was spend sitting on the bathroom floor, vomiting, drifting off here and there, and truly seeing life from a new perspective.
The standard treatment protocol for my type of cancer is six rounds of chemo, one round every third week. The drugs I received for the first three rounds were terribly nauseating, worse than I could have ever imagined. The drugs I received for the next three rounds were different with completely different side effects. I was given steroids for three days prior to and after these last chemo treatments. The steroids strengthen the body before the intense chemo drugs really kick in, and once they do, the steroids have to be weaned off. As the steroids waned I was left to face the terrible effects of chemotherapy. It’s difficult to put into words what those last few chemo treatments were like, but I’ll try: seemingly random shooting pains everywhere and anywhere; complete muscle fatigue and exhaustion; an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and sadness; days spent crying as cell death mounted and my body began to believe it was dying. The chemo drugs are extremely effective at killing everything; healthy cells as well as cancer cells die by the trillions, and at breakneck speed.
About a week after being chemoed (my own word), I began to feel better. The episodes of cell death were followed by cell regeneration and I was amazed by the body’s capacity to heal. Even after pumping the most toxic of the toxic chemicals into my body, I was nearly back to my normal self after just two weeks. It was odd, but I started craving meat after the first round of chemo. I say ‘odd’ because I hadn’t eaten meat or even thought about eating meat for 34 years. At first I resisted my cravings, dismissing them as crazy, but after the second round of chemo the cravings became insistent, so I listened and succumbed. Up until that point in my life I didn’t need meat, but after the cell-destroying chemo, my body craved the building blocks of cell regeneration. Eating meat for the first time in all those years made me feel amazing, and it seems I absorbed and assimilated it with ease. My cravings for meat have since subsided but now I’m open to eating all foods in moderation. Blood tests showed that I was dangerously low in vitamin B12, which can be stored in your body for 30 years. So the cravings were my body’s way of telling me that I’d used up my reserves and they needed replenishing.
During the spring and summer of chemo I was blessed to be able to spend most of my time at our cottage on a lake near Algonquin Park. It was being in nature, being nurtured by sounds, smells, creatures, and water that helped me to heal peacefully. I listened to the loons, to the wind in the trees, to the waves on the water, and to the thoughts in my head. Meanwhile the building we bought was being renovated, and as anyone who’s done a renovation knows, it’s an exercise in letting go. Normally I’d have immersed myself in the details, the decisions, the daily trials and challenges of a renovation, but early on I knew to relinquish control, and thankfully my husband took the helm. The summer ended and so did the chemo treatments. My body was in rough shape, but not nearly as bad as I’d feared. I’m convinced that the chaga helped enormously to boost my immune system and reduce the lingering side effects of chemotherapy.
On Oct 10, 2012 I had surgery to remove my entire left breast and 18 lymph nodes in my armpit. The recovery from surgery was long and slow. Because the vessels and nodes where lymph once flowed had all been removed, I had a tube inserted beneath the skin and below my armpit to drain the lymph out of my body and into a container by my side. I was told that in time the body would build new pathways for the liquid to flow. I learned about lymph first-hand, that it’s a cross between blood and water, a middle-fluid that flows in as well as between the vessels of our entire body. The tube draining the lymph had to be monitored hourly because if any lymph or blood became backlogged, it could be serious. After about two weeks the nurse who visited me daily announced that it was time to remove the 8-inch tube. Pulling it out is an intensely painful procedure. Some people take painkillers but I thought I could manage without. The nurse gave me a lesson on using the breath to control the pain, which involved controlling one’s reaction to pain. After a few long breaths the tube was yanked out of my body, leaving behind a little hole that eventually scarred over.
Next I began radiation treatments–five weeks, Monday to Friday. On the first day of treatment measurements were taken and my body was tattooed. In order for the radiation to be administered, my arm needed to be in a particular position. But because my arm was still recovering from surgery, I didn’t have the requisite range of motion to get into position. So the senior technician, who just happened to be an old yoga student from Downward Dog, was called in. After her excitement and shock at seeing me there, she checked my range of motion and concluded that I needed a week of yoga before I’d be ready for radiation. A week later the treatments began. In twenty percent of people the heart is too close to the front of the body for radiation to be administered safely. Because I fell into that category, I first had to take a special class on breathing before treatment could begin. Yet again I found myself adapting my breath. I was taught how to hold my breath with a large, snorkel-like tube in my mouth while they zapped me with radiation. The technician, safe in a separate room away from the cancer causing rays, talked through a microphone. It became a routine: I’d lie down while they put the snorkel in my mouth and aligned the rays with the tattoos. Then they’d leave the room, closing the very thick door behind them, and a speaker would tell me when to inhale and when to exhale. It was during the inhalation breath that the rays entered my chest safely because the heart moves a fraction higher during the in breath which clears a pathway for the rays to bypass the heart and irradiate the surrounding tissues where there might be lingering cancer cells. Soon after the treatments begin, the skin becomes progressively burnt, like a sunburn that blisters.
My last radiation treatment happened to fall on December 31, 2012– the year the world was supposed to end. And it felt like mine had, my old world that is, the one where I thought I was in control, the one where I felt invincible, the one where I took simple things like being healthy for granted, and the one where I thought I had a say in my own mortality. Leading up to my diagnosis, I felt like I was on top of the world. The image on my screensaver was a photo I’d taken the previous summer in the Rockies. My son and I are standing on the peak of a high mountain and he’s looking over the edge into the abyss. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like I’d been thrown over the edge of a mountaintop and thrust into a canoe. Then I was going down, down the rapids, and holding on for dear life. There was no getting out and portaging, and I wasn’t wearing safety gear. It was just myself amid the rushing waters, the deadly boulders, and danger all around. I began praying for a safe return, for guidance, for insight and understanding. If I could survive this experience perhaps I could support others who were being sent down the same river.
My community, my family, and I were all shocked to hear that the healthiest person they knew got cancer. As if blame and accountability were involved, I asked myself, “why me? What did I do wrong?” But ultimately that line of inquiry wasn’t useful or helpful, and it was far too simple. Our lives and the world around us are interwoven threads; we’re all exposed to toxins in the environment, and we all have some cancer cells growing in our bodies. Why is it that sometimes our immune systems cannot manage the balance, and the cancer cells become dominant? For now, there’s no definite answer. Certainly I’m not saying that our state of mind, our emotions, and actions don’t affect the body we borrow and the world we inhabit. We try our best to achieve balance and harmony within ourselves and in the world.
Confronting the truth, expressing emotions, release, assimilation and integration are all part of the healing process. Cancer made me question the harmony and balance in my life. I wanted to understand and come to grips with the shape of things that preceded my diagnosis. In my vulnerable state, unable to suppress things any longer, I asked myself, “what happened? What do I need to say out loud?” Suddenly intense feelings of sadness and anger erupted to the surface. I realized that something had been unfolding for years, and that something had come to a head nine months before my diagnosis. Around that time I’d kept myself extra busy with yoga–the very thing I was convinced was good for me. I couldn’t see that getting busy was a cover-up, a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. Yet my heart and the mirrors in my life were telling me that I’d outgrown the very structure I’d help to build at Downward Dog. I no longer wanted to practice yoga in a way that was fixed and frozen in tradition. I wanted to be myself. Downward Dog became a place where I no longer “fit in”. But it was difficult to let go of the past, of old truths and prior commitments. The pain of it all, the tension, sadness, grief, rejection and anger were feelings I suppressed.
Ashtanga yoga–a practice designed for adolescent boys–served me well for years. It was my religion and frankly it became my addiction. Yoga is not meant to be a strict dogmatic practice, that’s something I imposed upon myself. For years I tried obsessively and zealously to get my legs behind my head. My story with yoga’s a typical one: aging yogi not wanting to admit and accept that she can’t do the postures she once did. Even when we’re able, most of us don’t want to admit that it’s no longer healthy to continue practicing in the same way. Extreme stretching over time causes weakness in the connective tissue called fascia, and it’s very difficult for over-stretched fascia to recover its previous elasticity and strength. My body was losing its elasticity. I wasn’t bouncing back after doing simple things like slouching on the couch. For one of the most flexible people I knew, I was beginning to feel old, yes, but I was also beginning to feel that something wasn’t right.
There’s a saying that is very familiar in the yoga world, “your injuries are your teachers.” That was certainly the case with me. Seven years ago I tore my gluteus muscles and that was my wake-up call. I’d been sitting in lotus posture of all things. It felt so easy. Finally my hips were open enough to sit without pain, which had taken years of practice and effort. After a blissful meditation in which I praised myself for being so open, I did a simple forward bend and heard four loud sounds coming from my right hip. I’d torn the external rotators away from the bone. During rehab I discovered that my glutes were very weak and dysfunctional, which wasn’t always the case because at one time I had strong functional glutes. It was through yoga that I learned about glutes, and was taught how to soften them. l listened without questioning the teachings until tearing my glutes snapped open my eyes. And then I began exploring other disciplines and modes of movement. I consulted with sports medicine doctors, chiropractors, and physiotherapists. I talked with students, yoga teachers, and personal trainers. It took years to process, to come to grips with and accept that I’d gotten it wrong about the glutes. And not just that, I’d passed on wrong information to hundreds of yoga students and teacher trainees. This question of whether or not to use the glutes has become a very controversial subject within yoga circles. And in my own life it’s caused tremendous stress. When I began talking openly about this subject a few years ago, it caused ripples within my close circle. Of course it would, what I was saying went against the grain, challenged the old paradigm, and contradicted what we’d all been taught. I felt as if I’d opened a can of worms.
In retrospect, had I not been so singularly focused on yoga, I probably wouldn’t have torn my gluteus muscles. Had I been jogging, dancing, cycling, swimming, going to the gym, doing squats, pilates, taking more long walks, and participating in a whole variety of activities, then I’d have had more overall strength and flexibility. I used to advise my yoga students against the gym, thinking it would “take away” from their yoga practice. I’ve learned that yoga is not a series of postures but a state of mind that can be accessed by doing just about anything. Yoga means union. To be fully present and one with the moment, whatever you’re doing, be it riding a bike, climbing a mountain, taking a bath, sitting in lotus or sitting on the bus–that is the goal of yoga.
One thing leads to another: a muscle tear, rehab, questioning one’s foundation, breaking from tradition, explorations off the mat, and a life-threatening disease to catapult me into making decisions and to help me see and embrace the shape of my life, as well as the flow of life in general. The way I practice and teach yoga has changed. I’ve moved towards more simple postures with greater intention and focus on the internal practice, the bandhas, the breath, and the flow of energy. I’ve moved from doing yoga to being yoga. The river with its continuous movement is a reminder to me that everything including this moment will pass, which helps deal with the present. The river keeps flowing with and without us, which is humbling. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I felt invincible, on top of the mountain, looking down. That feeling has since dissolved into the abyss.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to each one of you that has blessed my life with your presence and love. In my darkest moments all I could think of was the love that filled my life, and the love that is shared between human beings. There is no stronger force. Love is the fabric of life and the thread that weaves us into the whole of existence, past, present, and future
I recently read a passage that resonates with me deeply. Please take a deep breath before you read it.
“Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind. In the process of discovering our true nature, the journey goes down, not up. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move towards turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain and we try not to push it away. At our own pace without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of compassion. Right down there in the thick of things we discover the love that will not die.” –Pema Chodron
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