By Kim OBrien
Originally published on YogaVista.tv as "Surviving Breast Cancer: My Personal Experience"
A Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Hey Yogis! I typically follow that tagline with an enthusiastic Chair Yoga Class, but today I share something more personal. For the past year, I have been working my way through a breast cancer diagnosis. When I first heard the news, I was caught completely off-guard.
I thought I was doing everything possible to make myself “bullet-proof” against a disease like cancer:
I cleaned up my diet years ago
I swapped out my beauty and home cleaning products with natural, non-toxic alternatives
I exercised regularly — practiced Yoga, Qi Gong, meditation and breath relaxation techniques daily
I kept up with the latest in natural health and well-being
I have no family history of cancer (zero, zip)
At the time of my diagnosis, my only risk factors for breast cancer were being female and over 50. Cancer was NOT on my radar!
My Doctor found the Lump
September 16th, 2022 marked the one year anniversary that my lump was found. I dislike using the word “anniversary” because I prefer to associate the term “anniversary” with special occasions and this one is not special in any way. My lump was not detected by a mammogram, but instead at the hands of my most excellent doctor. Every year she takes the time to check for lumps.
Are Annual Mammograms Enough?
Like many women, I did not have my annual mammogram in 2020 due to Covid and unfortunately, I was not diligent about doing self breast exams. By the time things settled down with Covid I didn’t get back in for my annual physical until September 2021. Even if I had had my regularly scheduled mammogram in May of 2020, there is no guarantee that my lump would have been found.
For one thing, I have “dense breasts”. It is harder to see tumors on a mammogram because dense breast tissue and tumors both show up white. That makes it hard to identify cancerous growths. Secondly, as my surgeon advised and I later confirmed through my own research, many cancers are fast growing. You can have a clean mammogram Tuesday and by Friday of the same week a tumor can begin to form.
Regular Manual Breast Self-Exams
Waiting an entire year for a mammogram is simply not enough. Regular, manual, self-exams must be part of your breast health protocol. As one fellow breast cancer “thriver” suggests, “squeeze your stuff” and I could not agree more with Fitz Koehler.
Laid-Back Attitude around Breast Cancer
Aside from being caught off-guard by my diagnosis, I was equally floored by the laid-back attitude around breast cancer. The number of people who told me it was not a big deal and there is no need to worry is too long to count. I kept hearing:
Breast cancer is “curable.”
“Treatment has come so far and you will be fine.”
“My aunt had breast cancer 20 years ago and she is still alive.”
“I believe God chose you for this, so that you could be an example to others.”
and my all time favorite, “Well, my church teaches that greed causes cancer…”
Okay, so if I have this right, breast cancer is a cakewalk, I will live for another 20 years and God chose me because I was strong or because I was greedy or is it both?
Breast Cancer is a BIG DEAL!
Well, I am here to tell you that breast cancer is a BIG DEAL! Even though treatment options have come far, they are still hard, uncomfortable and DO NOT come with any guarantees of longevity. I am NOT “the chosen one”… that’s Harry Potter. And if in fact greed does cause cancer, then there is a whole lotta greed out there because statistically speaking, “1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.” Source
My Cancer Treatment
This is what my treatment involved:
Two Biopsies — I passed out cold during both procedures
One Surgery — successful, but I dealt with a very uncomfortable Seroma post-surgery for weeks
3 Months of Chemotherapy — of which I am here to tell you honestly, that losing my hair was NOT the worst side effect; in fact, having no hair ANYWHERE on my body was very freeing in a peculiar and humorous way
6 Weeks of Radiation — which I chose to drive myself to every single day because I needed some “me time” without the eyes of loved ones looking at me with compassion tinged with pity
And it is all topped off with the prospect of several years of drug therapy which comes with many uncomfortable side effects that may reduce the future risk of recurrence. However, as I have said before, there are no guarantees or certainties with cancer treatment. And that, my friends, has been the hardest realization for me to come to terms with:
“MAY reduce the risk of recurrence.”
We all have Cancer Cells
In the beginning, I thought all this toxic treatment would heal me and kick cancer out of my body for good. However, the truth is that we all have circulating cancer cells in our bodies and there is no way to eliminate them, not even chemotherapy can do that. We can only tune our bodies in a way that hopefully makes our “soil” uninhabitable.
Working through Breast Cancer
How did I work through my experience with breast cancer? And please take note that I didn’t call it a “journey”, because I have decided when I am on a journey it’s going to be a path I choose to explore, not endure. I wish I could tell you that it was Viktor Frankl’s writings that inspired me to seek a reason beyond myself to keep my fight to stay alive strong.
Actually, it was more Winston Churchill’s words that motivated me: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” So I kept going, because at times, it was Hell.
Healing through Yoga
And how did I keep going? As soon as the strong effects of chemo wore off at the end of each week, I was back teaching Chair Yoga on zoom, at least until my next chemo infusion. I learned quickly that sharing my love of yoga was as healing for me as it was for the participants. I am blessed to have a local community who didn’t care if I was sick or bald or had to cancel class at the very last minute.
The yogis kept showing up week after week to zoom with me, to support me, so together we could heal our hearts, bodies and minds.
My yogis, my family and my tribe showered me with kindness, compassion and a love as I have never experienced before. But that last sentence is not completely true. The love that I received was always there… I simply failed to see it. But I see it now and I will never take a smile or a warm hug or a kiss for granted again.
Laughing Out Loud
During treatment I stopped watching or reading anything that was sad. I was sad enough and I didn’t need to add to it. So every single time when I took to the “cancer couch,” I binge-watched The Big Bang Theory or Friends or Seinfeld or Ted Lasso… Anything that offered me the opportunity to Laugh Out Loud. Laughter heals or, at the very least, it distracts.
“We can either change the complexities of life – an unlikely event, for they are likely to increase – or develop ways that enable us to cope more effectively.” – Dr. Herbert Benson.
The Slow Process of Recovery
I will never be fully cured of cancer, and I am in no way fully healed, but I have started the slow process of recovery. I am far from being the person I was pre-cancer and I am not sure I will ever be her again. My heart is broken. The conventional treatment may be in the rear view mirror, but learning to live with cancer creates new challenges.
The Struggle of Surviving
One final thought I’d like to share is that cancer is hard on the body, but even harder on the mind. For me, recovering physically has not been nearly as hard as recovering mentally. Yes, I am currently surviving cancer, but some days surviving is not merely enough. Every day I have to convince myself to keep going and keep moving forward. Here is where Friedrich Nietzsche’s eloquent words guide me, “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW.” I have many WHYs to live for, but I am struggling to navigate the HOWs.
My Daily Affirmation
I cannot recall exactly where I read this next line, but it has become my daily affirmation:
I have decided to stop trying to Save My Life and instead Start Living It.
I know that I am not alone in this experience.
One thing I have come to fully appreciate is that Pain is Pain; Sadness is Sadness; Loss is Loss; Disappointment is Disappointment.
It all feels the same way on the inside.
Sending you health, awareness and light for a renewed spirit,
P.S. Finding Answers in Books
There were several books I read during my cancer treatment to help me find answers and peace. Some of these books were extremely hard for me to read like Chris Wark’s: Chris Beat Cancer. Chris chose to bypass conventional cancer treatment and take the “natural” path, yet within this book I found pivotal information that helped me recognize that some of the side effects I was experiencing from chemo were toxic. This knowledge which I shared with my oncologist resulted in a down-dosing of my chemo regimen. Sadly, my oncologist admitted to me that I was probably “overdosed on chemo”.
I found comfort in Kate Bowler’s books, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I Loved and No Cure for Being Human. I recently tore through Jeffrey Rediger’s book Cured and I took copious notes. That book led me to the one I am currently reading, A Year to Live by Stephen Levine. This last book may sound bleak, but it is turning out to be one of the most important books for my mental health. And, if you believe that we have the power within us to heal, then Jose Silva’s book, You the Healer, just might be something you’ll want to pick up when your mind is open and your spirit is ready to receive.
Thank you for sharing your story, Kim. SBC loves you!
SurvivingBreastCancer.org Resources & Support: