Revisiting Yoga After Cancer: Finally Coming Around

Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.

Oh, the moves I could do!

I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.

High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.

Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.

Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.

Then I got cancer.

And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.

Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.

But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.

I have made space in my life for yoga.

And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.

When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.

So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.

My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.

What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.

After All Those Bad Things I Said About Letrozole…

I feel that I need to revisit the whole letrozole thingie, just to be fair.

In my last post I expressed my frustration with the continued side effects of the estrogen-supressing aromatase inhibitors designed to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Cancer survivors face a considerable amount of pressure from our oncologists to stay on these medications, but everyone agrees that their use does not come without health risks or hits to one’s quality of life. The latter is a squishy concept that is not easily quantifiable.

Deciding whether to take medications for the length of time prescribed, or stop them early, comes down to an individual’s tolerance of both the side effects and risk.

So after all the complaining in my last post, the big question I have in front of me is that, given that I’m already postmenopausal — regardless of the fact that it was the medication that pushed me into menopause — if I were to stop letrozole, would I experience a significant improvement of my complaints? And if I could reverse the side effects how long would it take? None of that is clear.

Granted, there remains additional risk in taking an aromatase inhibitor, particularly long-term, as the cessation of estrogen production contributes to aging and age-related maladies, including heart issues, bone loss and broken bones. And certainly, there is gradual collagen and hair loss, not to mention suppression of the libido.

There are some bright spots in this.

But if we ignore that for now, I have to admit that not all days are as bad as how I described them. I don’t lie in bed staring at the ceiling while every single side effect hits me all at once. I experience them here and there. And most of them are tolerable.

My fear is about the future. If I’m feeling this now, what will it be like in another six months or a year? What if things go downhill gradually and I don’t realize it until later when I’ve slid so far down that nothing is salvageable. That’s completely ignoring the realities of the “now” for the imagined troubles of tomorrow. That is not being mindful!

But unfortunately, with medications such as these, the future is a factor that must be taken into account, and with that comes anxiety. Of course, anxiety always makes things worse. For me, it’s one of the most difficult side effects of cancer, because it magnifies all the negatives, both real and imagined.

I realized after I submitted the last post, after I complained about all the things I was experiencing, that not everything was as horrible as I thought. Things are not “normal”, and the situation is still applying a frustrating pressure on my quality of life. But maybe, for now, can I hold on and get the most out of the benefits of letrozole, and then re-evaluate tomorrow?

Yes, I can.

Finding A Path Through It

There are few things more terrifying than the unknown.

I experienced this with my cancer diagnosis, although it would be the same with any catastrophe that significantly alters your life, such as losing a job when you’re already financially strapped. You’re hit with the news and then…everything stops. It doesn’t matter who else is talking or what other information is relayed, because the gravity of the situation stops up your ears and you hear nothing else.

A powerfully negative event throws up a wall that you cannot see around. When the future is undefined, it can take any form. This is a positive and liberating concept when you’re embarking on a new venture — “the sky’s the limit!” But in the case of something that’s painfully life-changing, our minds race to frightening prospects, often culminating in a terrifying extreme that we can’t see our way out of.

This is where you pause and breathe. Get your facts together and see what your options are. Things get easier when the darkness in front of you parts and you see a path to follow. After my cancer diagnosis, it was when I met with the oncologist who explained the possible variations of my condition, what the treatments would be for each, and yes, even what the potential outcomes were.

Once you get a grip, the climb gets easier.

Sitting there, digesting the information, I finally felt like I had something to hold on to. If the diagnosis was a hulking monolith, smooth and slippery, blocking my way, my doctor’s words gave me handholds with which to climb.

Right then, the future looked more manageable. I still desperately wished that it had been different, but I saw the path through the ordeal and it gave me something to follow as I strode forward.

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April 27, 2017 was a Thursday. It was also the day of my first chemo infusion. If you’ve ever gone through chemotherapy, you’ve sat through the full disclosure of all potential side effects. There’s so much that it can be disorienting.

But on that Thursday when my husband and I went to the infusion room, I learned that there was a process. Everything doesn’t hit you at once, you take it in steps as you make your way down the path.

I’m still walking. But at least I’m still walking.

Can’t Let Go? Try Setting It Aside

With everything that’s going on right now, it would not be surprising if you were having trouble sleeping.

I myself have an internal alarm that wakes me up around 3am, giving frightening thoughts a chance to land hard punches. It’s far easier to keep negative emotions at bay during the daylight hours, but our defenses are down when we’re groggy. Before I know it, I’m already on that hamster wheel, getting nowhere and working up an anxious sweat in the process.

Ok, nighttime. Wanna go?

There’s a lot to worry about in the time of COVID-19. Take your pick of stressors: finances, physical health, relationships, emotions. At night, our brain wants to fix everything that we’re hit with during the day, but obviously, that’s not the time for it. Few things are as critical for dealing with stress as a good night’s sleep, which you won’t get if you’re trying to calculate how many months’-worth of rent you have left.

The mistake we make is trying to let go of things completely. When “danger is imminent”, as in, the worst-case scenario is a distinct possibility, it’s unrealistic to pretend it’s not. I promise you, as a former cancer patient, I had terrors breathing down my neck. I could not simply “let go” of them. They were life-changing and oh-so real. But with a little effort I could loosen their grip on me.

Your concerns need some respect. So instead of trying to avoid them, try gently putting them aside. You know they’re still there, they know they’re still there, but you’re not butting heads. This may take some mental calisthenics.

Even the tiger needs some shut-eye.

Ask yourself, “Can I do anything productive right now?” If the answer is no (hint: unless the house is on fire or there’s a tiger loose in your bedroom, the answer is no), then create a mental shelf for your anxious thoughts. You can build one for yourself, right there lying in bed, no hammering required.

Find yourself a jar with a secure lid. I know you have one somewhere in your mind. Scoop your thoughts in there, screw the lid on tightly and place the imaginary jar on that imaginary shelf. This may take several tries — unpleasant thoughts are slippery — but that’s okay. Make sure the shelf is across the room from you. The jar will still be there in the morning when you wake, thoughts swirling inside. But in the darkness, you’ll have some space between them and yourself.

As you lie in your bed, take a deep breath, feel the weight of your body on your mattress, feel the softness of your sheets on your skin. Look at the shelf, way over there. Way, way over there, and you safe in your bed. Allow yourself to relax.

That’s what you need most in the wee hours of the morning. So rest easy now. Tackle the problems tomorrow.

And Now We Wait…

Last Monday night my daughter and I noticed that we had sore throats. No big deal most of the time, but we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

Of course, a sore throat can develop for a number of reasons. And we’ve been washing our hands, using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available, keeping our distance from people. Nothing much to worry about, right?

Right. Except that it seems like a sibling of mine had actually suffered through an illness resembling COVID-19, with first symptoms appearing over a month ago, with a gradual onset. At that point, like many in the United States he wasn’t in a position to get tested (and with a fever of 103.9, he wasn’t about to drive himself to the doctor).

Now, I haven’t been in physical contact with him for about a year. But since I had a sore throat, I casually asked him what his symptoms were. I mean, I wasn’t exhibiting the same COVID-19 indicators everyone talks about.

Here we go again.

Apparently, his illness also started with a sore throat, no other symptoms for about a week, at which point the cough started. That was followed by a shortness of breath and fever, including two days that the fever was dangerously high. Eventually, the symptoms subsided, with the sensation of an elephant sitting on his chest, along with a lingering cough, being the last to go.

This would be extremely disconcerting to me, if not for the fact the sore throats that both my daughter and I had lasted only a few days before going away.

Phew, right? Well, kind of. Because if this had been COVID-19, we would have been dealing with the monster head-on. Now, we’re prepped for a fight with no opponent. Back to being vigilant, washing hands and crossing fingers.

Sound familiar? Any cancer survivor will tell you they’ve been down this road. It’s all about the waiting, trying to shed the anxiety about cancer coming back. Trying to shed the hypervigilance. There is no “end date”, there’s just an “I’ve made it this far so maybe my risk is decreasing?”

With COVID-19, we experience that lack of “end date” on a smaller scale. Eventually, there’ll be a vaccine. But we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting and how long our lives are going to be so drastically different. However, relief will eventually come and we can exhale.

As a cancer survivor, I’m kind of jealous.

Musings from a Lockdown State

If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, it’s that all of us on this planet are inextricably interconnected.

In times of disease spread, this may seem like a bad thing, but it’s also an opportunity to pause and reflect that no matter where we live, we all belong to the same species. We are all vulnerable to the coronavirus, no matter whether someone is a high-profile lawmaker, a movie star, a famous athlete or the custodian at an elementary school.

So this is similarly a good time to think about the importance of sharing resources and considering the common good. I’m looking at you, Ms. “I’m-cramming-three-packs-of-toilet-paper-into-my-cart-even-though-the-limit-is-one.” C’mon, don’t be like that. Leave the stampeding to cattle herds. And the rebellious college students who feel the right to crowd beaches for Spring Break celebrations? Time to grow up.

We should be above that. And I believe we are.

As many hiccups as there have been, communities are adjusting to the changing situations at a breakneck pace. My university has ordered all “non-essential” personnel to work from home, within a week, we scrambled to move meetings online and eke out a research plan. Likewise, university courses are transitioning to an online platform, as is my kids’ high school. Restaurants have switched to take-out wherever possible. And my daughter joined her fellow fencers for a ZOOM training session with their coach last night.

This is not to say that this has been effortless. My daughter will probably lose her restaurant job, which means that she won’t have the income to continue fencing, as the classes are a financial burden on our family. But she has a place to live, food to eat and incoming college acceptance letters. Others are losing their livelihood and looking at a far bleaker future. Many of our favorite small businesses are suffering. Therefore, as much gratitude as I have for the ability to work from home and not face immediate financial consequences, I have great compassion for those who are struggling through what could be a long and difficult situation.

Blink and the numbers increase…

And this isn’t even counting the number of infected individuals, some with severe complications. These days, “hot spots” are less about internet connections and more about loss of life. Few saw this coming and we won’t see the end of it for some time to come. My heart goes out to COVID-19 patients, their loved ones and the uncertainties they all face.

At the same time, I’m concerned about a group with which I’m more familiar: newly-diagnosed cancer patients. Getting a cancer diagnosis is frightening enough; getting that diagnosis when the treatment for the disease puts you at significantly higher risk for succumbing to a global pandemic is unimaginably unfair.

This is painful, so I look for the bright spots in the world: the clothing designers distributing patterns for people to make their own masks so they don’t compete with hospitals for supplies, and the designers making gowns, scrubs and face mask covers for doctors; the local seamstresses who are firing up their sewing machines and using their skills in the same way; the alcohol distilleries and perfume producers who are switching to making hand sanitizer; the millions of dollars raised to support intensive care units. All this gives me hope that we are bigger than the virus and we’ll pull ourselves out of this.

So Far, So Good

I had a mammogram last Thursday to ascertain whether or not I was still in remission from breast cancer.

For the record, I still am, although it’s easy to say that like it’s no big deal. Not only is it a huge deal, but getting through last week was more difficult that I anticipated.

One of the basic tenets of mindfulness that I practice, with varying degrees of success, is non-attachment. This is particularly useful when dealing with cancer because the disease involves so many scary things, and as a result, so much wishing that things were different. Of course, the more you agonize over the fact that you’re going through something you desperately don’t want to be going through, the more suffering you experience.

I can personally attest to this.

It would be great if letting go of expectations would be as simple as releasing a paper lantern, but it’s not that easy.

To counter this, I do my best to release expectations of specific outcomes. When it come to scans, every cancer patient wants to hear that tumors are shrinking and every cancer survivor wants to be told that the tumor hasn’t returned. It’s REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hard not to cling to those wants, but the harder you cling, the more painful the separation if things don’t turn out the way you hope, and even if they ultimately do, there’s fear that they might not.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been practicing letting go. It’s funny that “letting go” is so easy to type out, but so incredibly difficult to accomplish. I’m not good at it when it comes to the things I desperately fear.

To counter my clinginess, I’ve adopted a concept I call, “so far, so good”. That means that up to this point, I’ve been able to handle everything that’s happened to me. This doesn’t mean that it’s been easy or pleasant — in fact, at times it’s been horrible — but somehow I’ve made it through to this point. And tomorrow? I cannot predict what will happen then, but right now I’m still here.

This way, I can feel positive without the burden of hopeful expectations — and the fearful possibility that those expectations will be dashed to smithereens. Of course, all of this sounds great because I’m speaking theoretically. But as we know, that ain’t real life, as I’ll illustrate in my next post…

A Month of Fear-Driven Memories

Here we go again…

Around this time of the year, I get uneasy. It’s February, which means it’s time for my mammogram and the determination of whether I’m still in remission from breast cancer. It’s also the month when, in 2017, my life was slammed in a different direction and the best I could do was try to hang on.

February 8, 2017: Doctor’s appointment. After feeling a lump in my breast for six months (SIX MONTHS!!!), I finally met with my general practitioner to have her tell me it was nothing. Except that’s not what she said. Instead, she gave me a referral for a diagnostic mammogram and warned me not to put it off.

My own mammogram is on February 27, 2020. I don’t think I’m going to get bad news, but I just want it over.

February 23, 2017: My mammogram and diagnostic ultrasound. I had not expected that waiting two weeks for a screening would be so horrible, but my anxiety worsened with every day. I also had not expected the radiologist to come in and tell me that I had cancer. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to do that without biopsy results, but he knew what he was looking at. One in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life, so he’d seen his share. Things spiraled downhill after that.

February 28, 2017: Biopsy. This procedure was anticlimactic in the sense that I knew I had cancer (see above). What I didn’t yet know was how aggressive it was. The procedure itself wasn’t bad but the mammography technicians were unable to get a clear picture of the titanium markers that the radiologist who biopsied me had inserted as surgical guides, so they took over eleven mammogram images on that left breast. The physical squeezing was miserable, but I was being squeezed mentally too. I think they eventually got the image they wanted…or maybe they didn’t. It was all a blur. I didn’t want to remember.

But now it’s three years later and I remember everything too clearly. Every February, I lose my footing on the Earth and hover for a few weeks in limbo, starting from when I make my mammogram appointment.

I’ll have an uneasy feeling until I get the “all clear” from the radiologist, or “I’m so sorry, but…”. On one end of the continuum, there’s glorious relief, on the other, mind-numbing anxiety, and I’m standing here in the middle. Most of my life now is lived in this middle ground and it’s a struggle to release expectations and attachments to how I want things to be. I’m not great at it, but I have the rest of my life to learn to deal. I hope that’s enough time.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 2

There’s more to the story I began in Part 1 and what better time than the start of a new decade to relate it?

I have a monkey. Those of you aware of your monkey minds know exactly what I mean.

But at this moment, “I have a monkey” means something more tangible. After giving it some thought, after going through struggle after exhausting struggle over all the negative chatter in my head, it was clear that I needed to change my strategy.

A quick Amazon search provided the result I needed: a gloriously soft, appropriately small, unbelievably cute plush monkey that would serve as my previously-maligned nemesis. It is a physical representation of my MonkeyMind (my little MoMi), but not one that I’d want to stay away from. This one begs for soft cuddles.

(To be clear, I bought a stuffed toy from the Amazon site, not an actual primate from the Amazon!)

How can something so darling be a nemesis? It shouldn’t be.

This is not about avoiding thoughts or wrestling my mind into submission, which I’d been trying to do. This is about acceptance of something that is a part of me.

Instead of tossing and turning at night, instead of succumbing to anxiety, instead of frantically trying not-to-think about what’s bothering me, I take that comfy manifestation of my worries and shower it with affection. I hold it gently, and then I hold my thoughts gently too.

Spread the love in 2020. We desperately need it.

The best part of this is that MoMi, a representation of that which upsets me, is actually so easy to hold and love.

What does my MonkeyMind need? The same thing this world needs a lot more of: LOVE.

May this New Year bring you lots of it.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 1

This post was inspired by Smilecalm’s beautiful combination of words and pictures. He has a very insightful monkey!

I got thinking about my MonkeyMind. Most of the time it’s doing a lot of chattering, distracting me from the present and keeping me up at night. I meditate in an effort to shut it up, but that’s a struggle.

We have had a tumultuous relationship, MonkeyMind and I.

I’ve tried to wrestle it into submission, but WOW does it put up a fight! We stand at odds, I in one corner and my MonkeyMind in the other, dukes up, gritting our teeth.

Headaches result. This is tiring. Something needs to change.

After numerous fruitless boxing matches, I decide to try something else, something I hadn’t thought of before. I invite MonkeyMind into my home. While I had, in the past, taken it by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it outside–an exercise in futility–now I’m opening the door…

We stare at each other. MonkeyMind looks a lot smaller sitting on the rug by the front door than when it’s screaming in my ear at 3am. Gentler and less menacing. Even a little scared, unsure of what’s going to happen.

MonkeyMind doesn’t look so scary there on the ground by itself. You mean, this is the little guy who’s been giving me so much grief?

I pat it on the head. Its fur is silky soft! I expected a rough, bristly coat, but it’s nothing like that. I can’t resist, I pick MonkeyMind up and then, as I look down at its anxious little face, I’m struck by an overwhelming urge to hug the little bugger, so I do.

And then something new happens: MonkeyMind burbles contentedly. I’ve never heard that before!

Then again I’ve never held MonkeyMind before. I’ve never given it the attention it required to make its needs known, never been sincerely patient with it, never cuddled it. I’ve just tried to push it away.

This is so much nicer.

Now when I wake in the middle of the night and notice MonkeyMind chattering in my ear, I take it in my arms and rub its tiny feet. I stroke its little back and feel the softness of its fur against my face. We take a deep breath together.

I feel grounded and present. MonkeyMind settles down. We both go back to sleep.

(Read Part 2 of this story here.)