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Breast Cancer Lesson #1: Ordinary Moments are Extraordinary

Andrea and Sofia
I like to joke that the first breast cancer surgeon I met with tried to get my business by buttering me up—over the course of 10 minutes she called me young and skinny. I haven’t used those two words in the same sentence to describe myself in many years but, unfortunately, her remarks didn’t come from a place of flattery. The skinny comment came as she poked around my armpit trying to find swollen lymph nodes and accidentally jabbed a rib. And the young comment, well, since I have zero family history of breast cancer, 42 is considered quite young for this diagnosis.

My joke about the surgeon is probably the only genuinely funny thing I’ve said since early September of this year when my doctor called to confirm that the lump I found while nursing my daughter was invasive breast cancer.

Anyone who’s been through the cancer maze knows how shocking, overwhelming, and exhausting it can be. It feels like a nightmare that you don’t get to shake off as the day goes by. There’s a seemingly endless trail of tests to get through, results to await, and decisions to weigh.

But as I sit down to write during this holiday season, my gratitude has never felt so great. Not for the cancer, of course. I am not going to call cancer “my teacher.” Cancer absolutely stinks, plain and simple. It’s awful and random and nonsensical. And yet, I can’t deny that the diagnosis is helping me “live my yoga.” I am living with more presence and appreciation than ever. In part it’s because I can’t deny anymore that I will expire someday, that we all have a shelf life.

Breast cancer researcher and patient advocate Dr. Susan Love said it perfectly when she was speaking to The New York Times about her leukemia diagnosis. She said, “It just reminds you that none of us are going to get out of here alive and we don’t know how much time we have.” She then went on to say, “I say this to my daughter, whether it’s changing the world or having a good time, that we should do what we want to do. I drink the expensive wine now.”

She describes perfectly the paradox of facing a life-threatening illness: It’s such a clear brush with reality that you realize that you have to live each moment with as much purpose and passion and love and laughter as you can muster.

In the days following my diagnosis, when it seemed like cancer was the new college major I hadn’t chosen but had to cram for, I found myself constantly shape-shifting between two different states: I would either watch someone doing the most ordinary thing – a college girl sipping Pho at the Vietnamese restaurant across from the Cancer Center – and think, ‘F*^#! I really wish I didn’t have cancer. I wish I didn’t have to worry about my daughter having her mother. I wish I were as carefree as that girl worrying about my next exam or my boyfriend or my nail polish. And if I ever am that carefree again…I am going to savor that soup!’ I hate to admit that I felt sorry for myself when there is so much suffering in the world, but the point is, I longed for the ordinary moments again.

The other state often came on the days when I felt my most desperate. I would feel fear simmering in my belly for hours on end and then a moment of clearing would come when it felt like time stopped. It’s been the closest thing I’ve experienced to a moment of awakening off my yoga mat. Colors would become incredibly vibrant. Sounds would woosh around me and I’d notice the simplest things in extreme, Technicolor detail.

One day, while walking down our street with my daughter in the backpack, I stopped and looked up at the trees above us. Instead of just seeing the branches that I walk under daily, my peripheral vision expanded. I noticed the whole canopy of leaves pressing against the incredibly blue expanse of sky behind them. Then my brain zoomed in for an extreme close-up. I saw each little leaf, softly, quietly shimmering. I noticed a hummingbird whiz by. I heard my daughter’s laughter in my ear. I wanted this freeze frame moment to go on forever. And then the switch flipped back and we moved on with our walk.

Right now I am healed from my surgery and I’ve been fortunate enough to forgo chemo. I still have a lot of treatment to go, but I am thrilled to be alive and healthy. And I’m grateful that my life is heading back toward being ordinary. The most ordinary of moments really do feel extraordinary and luxurious now. Sitting in a café reading my email, waking up with my family and making breakfast, taking a walk up Bernal Hill. I don’t have to muster purpose and passion and love and laughter for my life – they’re there all the time. And for that, I’m most grateful.

Before I sign off, I want to say a big, public thank you to all of you who have reached out to me during this time – the cards, books, emails, calming sprays, and flowers have meant more than I can put into words. Thank you to my incredible circle of family and friends who have offered endless support and love. Thank you to the expert  doctors, nurses, and surgeons who have cared for me at the UCSF Breast Health Center. (I worship you and deeply appreciate your devotion to this field.) I’ve found every single person who I’ve encountered on the support staff at UCSF to be so kind-hearted and patient — this makes a huge difference when you’re navigating cancer care. Finally, thank you to Peggy Orenstein and to Susan Love who brilliantly write about and advocate a cure. We need one. And we don’t have one yet.

One more quick note: There are many debates right now about the “dangers” of screening and I’ll just say that, I flat out, wholeheartedly disagree with the argument that women are being overdiagnosed. (Perhaps some women are being overtreated, but that’s another issue.) So: Get your screening annually, starting at age 40. (If you have a family history, talk to your doctor about the best guidelines for you.) There is an excellent blog post on the UCSF radiology blog about this very topic: The Truth About the Benefits and Risks of Annual Screening Mammograms.

And finally, if you are a nursing mother, you can still get a mammogram. I was confused about this and was told that they wouldn’t be able to read my images, which is not true!



35 Comments

  1. Thank you Andrea for your beautiful writing and generosity in sharing your story. Given your background in yoga, I thought you might be interested in this program: http://www.commonweal.org/program/commonweal-cancer-help-program/
    (Full disclosure, I work for a foundation (www.jaf.org) that supports Commonweal, where these programs are held.)
    The program is a week-long retreat located in Bolinas, CA where participants explore their choices in healing, from a strong scientific perspective, and talk about other aspects of cancer that mainstream healing programs do not address. If you have questions about the program or want to talk to someone who’s involved, I’d be happy to connect you.
    Wishing you strength and light,
    Shorey

  2. Dearest Andrea:

    I learned just recently via Megan about your fight with BC. She was unsure if it was confidential so I waited until now to reach out. You and your family are often in my thoughts. Having recently cared for a friend with BC post surgery, (who is single living in LA) I realized how important the support of loving caring family members is. As you said, you are not lucky for this diagnosis but your are truly blessed with you beautiful husband and daughter as well as your extended family and friends. You have been in my thoughts and prayers and now I only wish I had reached out sooner! But I join you in your life loving message and your inspiration in the ordinary. Thank you for being such a beautiful loving being and example of the humanness in each of us.
    Peace love and light,
    Anna

    1. Anna! It’s wonderful to hear from you and I feel your love and warmth from far away. (Please do not feel any guilt for not reaching out sooner…this was my big coming out 🙂

  3. Sending much love to your entire family. I’ve been a devotee of Jason’s video classes for several years and I’m really touched to read of what you’ve all been through.

  4. For someone that just had a scare myself, I appreciate your honesty, authenticity and insights that you had to share. Most of the women in my family have had breast cancer so I thought for sure I was next when I recently found a mass. I was touched greatly by your expression and wishing you a gentle and loving recovery time with your family.

  5. Your words ring so true to my own experience it is almost bone jarring. I remember standing in front of the mirror for the first time (post mastectomy) and recalling the words of Bryan Kest ..”Some people bring their shit into yoga and they make their yoga shit”..That was the point from which I reframed my experience and know my yoga practice was vital in it. I wish you much love and healing for you and your family. Namaste’.

    1. I love Bryan Kest’s ability to boil it all down to the essence! Thank you for connecting with me and I wish you much love, support, and good health! XO, Andrea

  6. I feel you Andrea. I just finished chemo, radiation and now I am with tamoxifen x 5 years. And as you said, it is incredible how cancer changes you in a way to see things or really look at them. All the small things begins to matter and in a weird way, I felt gratitude for a lot of things like ie not being sick as others… You know, your husband, through his yoga videos, helped and still helping me a lot. I do yoga at home as I wanted to do it at at my own pace. At the beginning (during chemo) I could only do 2 min. now I am doing the whole video… but anyway, the purpose of this note is to let you know that you are not alone. I know you are going to be great and as you said, the importance to get a screening annually as it saves lives. Kisses and hugs to you and your family.

    1. Dany: Kudos to you for your strength in getting through treatment. It’s so helpful to feel like I am not alone in this. And I’m genuinely so happy to hear that Jason’s classes have helped you on your journey. It’s so awesome to hear that you are building your strength back — the body is amazing!! Lots of love, Andrea

  7. Andrea, Jason and Sophia,

    You have all been in my thoughts, as we try to figure out this crazy world, or the reason why, you are right it is best not to and enjoy the moments. I am so happy to hear that you are on the healing side ( future treatments aside). Sending my love to all of you. Stay strong, stay happy, you deserve it! Thank you Andrea for being so brave and sharing this as your words and inspiration will help others.

    1. Tina! So wonderful to hear from you…thank you for your kind words and for the love. We will stay strong and happy, for sure! XOXO, Andrea

  8. Happy to hear you are healing. Sending positive energy. I’m a one year survivor and found yoga to help me regain my arm function post mastectomy. I regained my arm function and found where my soul is happiest in.

  9. Dear Andrea, Thank you for sharing these valuable words. Touched by a brief meeting with you and the family in London in August. A lot of what you describe reminds me of my mamma´s journey – now 10 years in remission – sending you love and strength for your healing journey. x

    1. Dionne: Right now, nothing makes me happier than hearing about long-term survivors. Thank you for writing. Wishing you and your mama and your family a life of good health and many blessings. Love, Andrea

  10. Just home after first consult with my surgeon for breast cancer and am reading your beautiful article that resonates so deeply with me. I am a restorative yoga teacher… and so grateful for my practice… my being… being-ness itself… and grateful for the sharing of your journey… we are not alone. Wishing you all the best.

  11. Cindy: I’m so sorry to hear that you are going through this, too. I’m glad to hear that the post resonated with you. And I’m so glad that you reached out. The connections I am making with others has been one of the biggest gifts of this very challenging time. With love, Andrea

  12. Andrea.. I remember you as young and skinny and that is coming from a place of flattery… more importantly I know you are incredibly strong and balanced.
    your words are those of a brave and enlightened soul. may the sun shine to reflect life in the perfect light for you.

  13. You will do great! As a six year survivor (invasive ductal and lobular…cause I like a good challenge)I know all to well the road you are navigating…And how important it is to see those of us who are thriving…during the first several month it is difficult to see anything but the “bad” outcomes. Thank you for being an advocate of screening…It is also important for people to respect the choices of others…Sadly I received judgment from many in the yoga community over my treatment choices…and was even (often) accused of manifesting the cancer (I intuitvely knew I had cancer and spent three years trying to find where it was). Some of my biggest support has been from others going through/been through this journey…there is a huge (to huge) tribe of us out here…use us as needed!

  14. I am also a devotee of Jason’s videos, the occasional class when I can get there, and 15 years cancer free. Your words are so moving, inspiring, and real. Each day is indeed a gift. All the best wishes to you!

  15. Jason and Andrea: Sending love and healing light to you both. Sharing your story is so heartwarming and generous and I pray you receive all the support you need to travel this journey.

  16. One more thought, Andrea – after reading your message above. I too am a NINETEEN year survivor of cancer and like you, it was so comforting when people shared their survival years with me. Hope that gives you a good boost of happiness today! XOXO

  17. HI Andrea,
    Thank you so much for bravely sharing about your journey. Sending you and your family so much love and blessings.
    Renee

  18. Wow, Andrea, I had no idea! I missed you guys at the Crib this year but figured you were just busy…
    What powerful writing, thank you for sharing. Raw and beautiful and insightful.
    My aunt also is a long term (20+ years now I believe) breast cancer survivor.
    Much love to you, Jason and Sofia-Rose!
    Kai

  19. Hi Andrea,

    In 2013 I had prostate cancer. Went through radiation and hormonal therapy. During the therapy, which lasted two full months, I did not bring the cancer to my yoga classes despite the side effects. Yoga helped me to be in an other present moment than the one occupied by worries, the side effects miraculously disappeared during the classes. I was living on the yoga cloud. But, I brought yoga to the hospital to treatments. During the buzzing of the radiation equipment I was thinking of the sequence I was going to teach or I would do Yoga Nidra. The stress disappeared,the time did not exist.
    A year after I was diagnosed and just as I was putting the prostate cancer behind me, an earthquake hit me. They found a growth in my right lung. X-rays, CT scan, PET scan, bronchoscopy, biopsy, confirmed a cancer. I was devastated. My first thought was that I would not see my granddaughter who was born few weeks before. Surgery followed. I was recuperating when, all of a sudden, I had a bad allergic reaction to an anticoagulant which almost killed me. I spent a month in hospital, glued to bed. Yoga was with me again. Breathing, Yoga Nidra. Few days before my release I could hardly walk. I managed somehow to do a very shaky Vrksasana pose. I cried from happiness. After I got home, yoga asanas accompanied me each day. Slowly, gradually, patiently, without pushing, I was coming back where I was. It took me almost a year, but I am back to my classes, back to other activities such as Ping-Pong and skiing. I arrived two days ago to Vancouver to visit my granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law. La vie est belle.

    Although I have always appreciated small things in life, my latest “adventures” made me to appreciate even more every breath, every drop of rain, sunshine, snow falling, singing of birds, sound of snow under the skis, wind, snow storm, thunderstorms. I do not mind if it is -30C outside or if it is raining heavily, as long as I live that outside of the hospital.
    I did not know you Andrea but I am a big fan of Jason’s videos and his teachings which I try to bring to my own classes the best way I can. I am sure that you, Jason and your daughter will have many, many more happy years together and in good health.

    All the best with metta,

    Ivan

    1. Thank you so much for writing, Ivan. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m so moved by the strength and courage of others. Thank YOU for sharing your story. And for connecting. It means so much. Wishing you many more healthy, happy days.
      Warmly,
      Andrea

  20. Andrea, I just read this email and I was crying. I had no idea about any of this. Also, your positivity and gratitude are something I have been working harder at and finding in my own life as well. Also, I have been told many times by my gynecologist to go start getting yearly mammograms. Had one ONE time and never since. Thanks for sharing this and I am keeping you in my heart. You are so strong.
    I love you.
    Phyllis

    1. Phyll! Phillie Phyll! Don’t cry! Oh…I don’t really know what to say. You know, it was just the hardest thing for me to reach out to my old friends. It made it all the more real. So, I apologize that you found out this way. Yes, I am now a believer in mammograms in the 40s. It’s so confusing because the US Preventive Task Force says 50 now but…I personally don’t agree. Love you sweetie. You are always always in my heart, too. XOXO

  21. I too have just been diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. I’m hungrily reading every personal story of courage and survival on this blog. Thanks to everyone who has posted. Can anyone recommend a good book/guide to getting though this process as wholistically as possible while still going with standard treatments of surgery and radiation?

    1. Hi Elise — The book that was most helpful to me was Susan Love’s Breast Book. She is an amazing woman, one of the first female breast surgeons, and is searching for a cure! Hope you are hanging in there, Andrea

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