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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Shining My Unique Light

By Elisabeth Perucca

I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2004, when I was 42. I lived in my home city, Paris, France. I had put an end to a 10-year relationship and was working as a writer in corporate communications for 20 years. My mom had had breast cancer at the age of 51—which was cured with surgery and radiation—so I had started doing yearly mammograms. It was during a yearly exam that my tumor was detected. The surgery report said: SBR III (Scarff-Bloom-Richardson, grade III), estrogen receptor +, HER2 1+, no cancer in lymph nodes. By the time I was diagnosed, I had spent my life doing a lot to be loved, and was constantly looking for the love and approval of others. I had also done a great deal of personal development and greatly benefited from psychotherapy (and other healing modalities) to heal. Honestly, I thought I was protected from this kind of disease. So when I heard the word “cancer,” I was shocked.

The treatment started with a tumorectomy which was followed with 6 cycles of chemo (4.5 months), radiotherapy, and hormone therapy Tamoxifene; Aromasine 2007; Arimidex 2008-2010.

Immediately after surgery, I felt hopeless and exhausted. To help me out of that dark space, a friend dragged me to a semi-private yoga class at the home studio of Aline Frati, a yoga teacher of 30+ years in Paris. My friend and I were the only two students. It was my first time doing yoga. And in that hour and a half, I went through a complete transformation.

Incredible Intuition

Aline had an incredible intuition about her. She had the ability to sense the students in her class. And she was able to deliver exactly what each person needed, at exactly the right moment. “The yoga I teach helps a person become aware of repetitive patterns of anxiety and fear that come from early childhood, and free that energy up so it’s reintegrated in the body’s global energy,” she once explained to me. She was and still is my yoga teacher, although she passed away in 2018. Aline’s yoga practice complemented the work I was doing in therapy. With yoga, I connected deeply with my body, I inhabited it. In therapy, I named my emotions and insights—some of them came up during the yoga practice.

Becoming a Yoga Teacher

After my treatments, Aline saw the yoga teacher in me: “you need to teach!” I had always wanted to be a dancer. I knew Aline was right, I knew that it was my calling to teach yoga- to share with others the type of healing and transformation that I had experienced. And I was going to do everything I could to become a yoga teacher.

In 2006, love made me do the big leap from Paris to Atlanta, GA. My husband was American and lived in Atlanta (he still does). Once in Atlanta, I worked as a freelance writer for corporate communications and, three years later, I started a 200-hour yoga teacher training. It was the first time I had ever stepped foot into an actual yoga studio. But soon after, I began the training process I realized that something was amiss. This yoga felt drastically different from what Aline had introduced me to during that vulnerable period of my life. Sure, there were other types of yoga that were more gentle and restorative, but they still didn’t quite unite my spirit with my body and mind in the manner that I was seeking.

Staying True to Myself

After my yoga teacher training, I started doubting. Should I teach a more “physical” yoga or restorative yoga to conform to what seemed to be the American way? Neither of these routes spoke to me. With the encouragement of mentors, I decided to stay true to myself, and started teaching (part-time) my own style of yoga- the type that worked for me—“my yoga.”

While I was still working as a corporate writer, I continued training in the healing arts. In 2010, I trained in gestalt therapy in Atlanta—an awareness practice that helps a person focus on the present moment and express their truth. This was a natural move since I wanted to give my yoga students an opportunity to speak their truth and I was familiar with therapy.

In 2011, I landed in a therapeutic yoga teacher training program in Atlanta, geared entirely to help a person heal whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, and was certified in 2013. The program trained yoga teachers to teach yoga with the sole purpose to help a person heal using yoga techniques, in one-on-one private sessions or small group classes. This yoga therapy training felt closer to what I wanted to do as a healer than what I had learned during my yoga teacher training. However more than anything else, the yoga therapy certification gave me the permission to create my own yoga-based healing modality.

2014 was the year of the “nuclear explosion.” I realized that, once again, I put the needs of others before mine. I had helped my husband to fulfill his dream—to buy a house—which had nothing to do with my own—to be seen by the man I loved. We ended up with a house and unable to connect. I separated from my husband, I got sick with a second bout of cancer, and my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, all at the same time. Just like the first time, the recurrence was diagnosed during my yearly mammogram.

A Team to Help Me Through the Other Side

I returned to France to regroup with my family and to rebuild myself. Just like for my first cancer, I put together a team to help me through the other side of the ordeal. The treatment included breast conservation surgery, I refused the mastectomy, 6 cycles of chemo (4.5 months), and hormonal therapy (Arimidex for 5 years). This time, cancer had spread to 2 lymph nodes. The breast conserving surgery went well, although, the situation turned tricky. Complications brought on an infection in the incision that simply would not heal. An infection. Chemo. Those things usually don’t go well together. I had no other choice than to start chemo and hope the infection healed. I managed to get rid of the infection at the end of chemo. What a relief for both my surgeon and I!

Unfortunately, another tricky turn came up. We were in the middle of winter. The incision transformed into a wound which had to heal from the bottom up so that it didn’t get infected again. This meant I needed to go to a nurse, every single day, so that they cleaned the wound and changed the dressing, until the wound closed up.

No one knew how long this would take. Two months later, the wound was still wide open. I visited my surgeon for one of those frequent check-ups. I felt so discouraged, I couldn’t hide it.

“For the wound to heal, I need you to have faith,” said Dr Dulaurans, my surgeon. His words woke me up. They echoed what my friend and reflexologist, Rodrigue Vilmen, was telling me for months, “You’re emotionally torn and don’t want to let go of your marriage. The wound is the physical expression of this struggle. Have faith. The wound will heal in the spring when you will feel clarity again.” Six months later, the wound closed up. The experience taught me how the body and mind are inextricably connected together.

What Are Your Dreams, Beliefs, and Values?

Meanwhile, I began therapy again. I knocked on the door of Laurent Malterre, a French licensed psychologist, author, and teacher of clinical psychology whose practice is niched in one of the oldest streets of Paris. We had come into each other’s lives in 2003, while I was struggling in a toxic relationship. With his help, I got out of the relationship and found meaning in my first breast cancer. When I returned to see Laurent in 2014, he urged me to see my light, to recognize who I am, instead of looking for others to recognize me. “What are your dreams, beliefs and values? What makes your soul unique?” were questions he asked me. That’s when I came up with my own vision of yoga therapy: I wanted to offer a healing modality with both the yoga practice I had learned from Aline and a space for my clients to speak their truth. That’s what was in my heart and soul! That was my light. After a year in France, I returned to Atlanta in May 2015. In August, my father passed away. A year later, I divorced and I let go of my 25+ year job as a corporate journalist to be a full-time yoga therapist. I continued to work with Laurent Malterre, both as my therapist and my mentor in yoga therapy, from Atlanta. Laurent and I started having Skype sessions, every other week, where we shared questions, challenges, and results that my yoga therapy brought. How does yoga help a person melt their barriers down and, ultimately, share their true feelings? How does yoga help feel what there is to feel? What does a specific symptom, a tension say of a person, their story and healing path? What does naming our pain bring to the table? How far can I go as a yoga therapist in inviting a person to share what they really feel? How can yoga complement verbal therapy? Our collaboration still goes on today, and we’re crafting together what my yoga therapy practice is. I started to include circle work in my yoga therapy classes.

Thriving After Illness

In parallel, I designed a body-mind, yoga-based 3-day workshop for people struck by physical or emotional illness. The workshop, titled “Thriving After Illness,” invites participants to experience practices that they can do in conjunction with, or after medical treatment, to improve their general health and wellbeing, and reignite their life fire. Nutrition, self-awareness exercises, and yoga are the workshop’s pillars. Every idea, concept, and practice mentioned in this workshop is there for one single reason- I’ve personally used them on my own healing journey, they’ve worked for me, and in some instances, they’ve probably saved my life. The pandemic has brought me to adapt my 3-day workshop Thriving After Illness for a broader audience. My new workshop is a live, virtual 2-hour discussion where I share the ways I have found to manage stress and take my place in the world. I also ask questions. Sometimes, difficult questions. Necessary questions. Participants share, bond. “Very thought-provoking” is a feedback I often get. I hope that’s exactly what my discussion workshop is! In addition to my discussion workshop, I facilitate one-on-one yoga therapy sessions, a small weekly group class (4 participants maximum), and workshops. Each class includes a healing circle where participants are invited to share what is truly going on with them before and after the yoga practice. My intention is to help my clients know what they truly feel in their body and in their soul, where they stand in their lives, what their true needs are, to help them be authentic with themselves and the people around them. For me, it’s the only way to wellness, true wellness.

Life After a Second Breast Cancer Recurrence

How am I doing now after my second recurrence? I am finally seeing the beautiful soul that I am, shining my unique light, and building my kingdom. I am feeling more authentic to myself than I have ever before. I've had the courage and possibility to leave the relationships that didn't serve me anymore. I've found new friends. I'm creating, from absolute scratch, a healing model, in which I strongly believe. So, overall, I feel joyful.

Does this mean life is easy for me? Hell no. Becoming a therapist is a huge journey. It's taken me a long time to name what I do and to name it to others. I'm getting there. My mom is across the pond, far away. Relationships? Well, they're hard. Still, I see my richness now. And that alone makes me want relationships that are more equitable.

Am I afraid of cancer? Yes. It can be a deadly disease. That being said, cancer can also be transformed into a path of richness and hope. That's what I want to help people do with my yoga therapy practice and why it's my life work.

Thank you for sharing your story, Elisabeth. SBC loves you! Resources & Support:

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