I Was Completely Unprepared for Cancer

Name: Esther Sadie Brandon, M.S.Ed.
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation: Education Consultant

breast-cancer-survivorI am now a breast cancer survivor. In early spring 2015, I was diagnosed with an early-stage carcinoma that was surgically removed. After surgery I had a course of radiation treatments. This was not a journey I would have chosen, but it has brought me gifts. During this time of diagnosis, treatment, and healing, practicing mindfulness and yoga has offered me a container to lean into and, at times, a container to surrender to.

In late April during the first days after the diagnosis, the words of Rabbi Alan Lew came to me during a sitting meditation: “This is real and you are completely unprepared.” They’re from the title of his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Rabbi Lew’s writings drew on stores of Jewish wisdom, as well as a profound psychological awareness borne of his work as a spiritual leader and counselor.

Rabbi Lew’s phrase, “completely unprepared,” really strikes a deep chord. It names something deep and pervasive in the human psyche. Although we’re not often in touch with this feeling, deep down we all feel unprepared. If we look at our lives honestly, the events that really shape us, that really make us who we are, are the events we didn’t prepare for, or we couldn’t prepare for: a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship—these are the things that really shape our lives.

So, what do you do? What is the next step forward? From a mindfulness perspective, a way to respond to life, including those moments when we feel “completely unprepared” is to simply take slow, deep breaths.

I have had a yoga practice for some 30 years. Through that, and through my work in teacher preparation, I began learning about and using mindfulness practices in my life. In yoga practice, for example, simple forward bends both standing and seated can be calming. During this traumatic time when waves of fear would arise, I would feel distracted and not easily able to focus. Practicing simple forward bends and reminding myself to breath would begin to settle my mind and body and the fears would begin to pass, giving me some space.

seated-forward-fold

Photo attributed to Flickr user: tarnalberry

Many moments followed when constructive choices and decisions needed to be made, and I would feel overwhelmed, almost as if I was underwater and not quite able to reach the surface. In those moments, sitting and following my breath would help me come to the surface. I could imagine my activated amygdala coming to quiet, and soothing energy being sent to my prefrontal cortex, calming my body and helping me to begin to think and make decisions. When I felt clear and more able to hear my own voice, I would gather myself to take the next step.

In my yoga practice, the following simple intentions have informed my practice: move into the pose, be in the pose and reflect on any thoughts or sensations coming up, and then surrender as you hold the pose—and then, with grace, repeating the cycle, using the tool of repetition to quiet any distracting thoughts and to give room for any strong sensations to ease. These intentions were helpful to me in managing the appointments with doctors, undergoing the surgery, completing a course of eight weeks of daily radiation treatments, and now healing. Sitting in a chair waiting for an appointment or for treatment, I would take slow intentional breaths, moving into a seated posture with my feet firmly on the floor, my back straight, my belly soft, creating space for my breath. I would notice any sensations in my body, if my heart was beating quickly or my stomach was churning. I would notice if my mind was jumping from thought to thought. I would breathe in and out and would notice the feelings, sensations, or thoughts settling like waves gently breaking on the shore.

I am now more easily able to mindfully feel both the difficult and the pleasant emotions of this journey: the uncertainty, the worries and the fear, the relief as I recover, the acceptance of a new normal, and noticing my strength and resilience—each informing the other. Writing about it now I see that having experienced cancer brought with it some gifts: a new sense of integration, a new sense of knowing myself, grounded in the present, with hope for the future.

Story appeared in Lion’s Roar, April 2016.

Esther Brandon headshot.JPG
Esther Brandon has practiced yoga and mindfulness meditation for 35 years. After retiring from Lesley University in 2012, Esther completed the Yoga 4 Classrooms® Licensure Program for Trainers, and she is in training to become a CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) facilitator. She has begun presenting an introduction to CARE for the Yoga 4 Classrooms IMPLEMENT™ Leader Training program focused on empowering schools to use teaming and in-school leaders to sustainably integrate yoga and mindfulness school wide.

 

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Balancing Act

This week’s Yoga Diaries are being presented in honor of the 15th Anniversary of
the Atma Center of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.


Name: Betsy Warner

Location: Cleveland Heights, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Insurance Agent

Photo by Flickr User john.schultz.

I used to think I had a stressful life. After all, I was busy. I was running a small business, I had a wife and two kids, and my 85-year-old mother-in-law had recently moved in with me. As I aged and added more layers of stress to my life, I managed to juggle a little faster and beat myself up a little more because I felt like the worst multi-tasker on Earth.

At the end of last year, my life changed drastically. Suddenly I wondered how anything that had come before had ever felt stressful.

Let me preface my story by saying I have an amazing wife. She’s a runner, she meditates, she eats well, she’s joyful, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s taught me an immense amount about enjoying life. So it was more than a shock when we learned last November that she had a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. Without notice, we were thrown into a world that is known only to those who have been there; a world of more questions than answers; a world of Western Medicine and more appointments than I thought possible; a world for “other” people. Yet here we were.

Photo by Flickr User TipsTimes.

First, the shock was so intense that neither of us could function very well. We went from appointment to appointment, but the rest of our life was on hold. We sat down with the doctors and set up a schedule for treatment that would take us through most of the year. We had no idea how horrid the treatments would be, and how much suffering she would go through. It was all so incredibly overwhelming that finding anything normal about our days seemed impossible.

I’d heard over and over again that the “caretaker” has to take care, and it didn’t take me long to understand why. So I went back to my on-again, off-again yoga practice. It brought a needed respite in an otherwise chaotic existence. My wife hadn’t been able to work since the diagnosis, so I took advantage of some free classes I was able to find, and supplemented with a home practice and one class a week at the Atma Center. I don’t think I was feeling able to cope, but I was feeling able to be present.

And then, before the shock had worn off, we had more news that seemed so improbable it was absurd. I found a lump in my own breast. The lump turned out to be nothing, but the mammogram revealed some calcified cells that worried the doctors. After an inconclusive biopsy I had a surgical biopsy. Waiting for the results was torturous, and when the news finally came I learned that I, too, had cancer. We would need to proceed with a lumpectomy to look for “clean margins.”

Had this happened six months earlier, it would have been the most stressful thing to happen to us in years. As it was, I just wanted to get through it so we could put that behind us and focus on my wife’s treatment. Oddly, we laughed about mine being the “good cancer.” It was detected early, and needed very little follow up. But after surgery I was unable to bear any weight on my arms or lift them over my head for weeks. So I kept it simple. I remembered the breathing practices and started doing them daily. I was able to do some restorative poses. Then I remembered the balancing poses, and I worked whole practices around them. The metaphor was so obvious, but those were the poses that made me feel like I could keep my life on an even keel. Gradually I was able to get my strength and flexibility back, and I resumed classes.

When the Atma Center offered a special on summer passes, I snatched it up. I’ve been to 2-4 classes a week since I bought the pass, and I still do at least a brief home practice most mornings. Through all of the insanity that has transpired in my life in the last eight months, I’ve actually felt less overwhelmed than I was before this all happened. I’ve been able to give up the idea of multi-tasking rather than beating myself up about it. I’ve managed not to stress out about the ridiculous stack of medical bills we have compiled. I’ve been able to appreciate what amazing gifts we have in our life. I’ve been thankful beyond words for the help we’ve received from friends and family.

By the time you read this, my wife will have finished what we hope is her final treatment for cancer. And I can’t imagine going back to my pre-cancer “normal.” I can’t say all of this is due to yoga, but I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through this year without it; and not just gotten through, but be in it and appreciate it in all of its complexity. And though I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, through it all I have learned and grown and come to know joy in the midst of intense sadness. I have come to really appreciate that each day is truly a gift. As I continue to evolve on so many levels in my life, I am grateful to have yoga to help keep me grounded, present, and yes, balanced.

Betsy Warner is an insurance agent in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She lives with her wife, two daughters, and her mother-in-law. She likes to walk her dog, hike, bike, camp, garden and sing. She’s been practicing yoga since 2004, both with a home practice and a variety of classes, mostly in the Satyananda style. Betsy can be found here on Facebook.


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