Remember those moments, as a kid, when you just couldn’t wait to be a grown-up? You wanted to ride your bike with your friends after dark/dye your hair purple/sleep over at your boyfriend’s house and you agonized when your parents wouldn’t let you? Or do you remember feeling lost as a young adult and wishing that you had things “more figured out?”
Now, do you remember when the flip switched and you and your friends started lamenting, “Ugggggh. I’m soooooo old. How did this happen??!!”
I’m writing this on my 43rd birthday. And I want to erase the “I’m so old” lament phrase from my consciousness. I get it. I really do. I’ve been guilty of it. And I will cop to fact that the process of aging isn’t always easy. When you get carded until you’re 30, it’s hard to face the fact that you will never. Ever. Get. Carded. Again. And sure, to get a halfway decent selfie after the age of 35 you really have to hold the camera at the just right angle and 90% of the time it’s better for all of mankind if you delete it. (I am always barking at Jason, “Higher! Hold the camera higher!”)
Fear can feel painful, overwhelming, even paralyzing. Whether you’re facing a major life change like an illness or a break-up, or a more specific fear like giving a presentation to colleagues or standing in front a group and teaching a yoga class, I hope this post gives you some idea for navigating fear with more ease.
I’m not going to lie. I still have moments, hours, or even days when I’m consumed with fear about cancer. Despite the campaigns that have played out over the past 20 years, early detection does not guarantee a cure for breast cancer. (Laurie Becklund, a well-known reporter for the LA Times, faced this reality and wrote about it just before she died from metastatic breast cancer in March.)
I never used to be afraid to go to the doctor. But that’s different now. My fear arises with a vengeance when it’s time for a check-up. There are lots of them at this point. For all kinds of whacked out lady-related things that I won’t go into here. (You’re welcome.)
Last week, before one of these check-ups, I spent 24 hours moving through what I am now referring to as my Seven Stages of Coping with Fear. I am now intimately familiar with these stages because last fall they were on a repeat loop while I was constantly awaiting test results. This means that I:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – about consciously thanking my body for all that it does. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s easy to feel like your body has betrayed you. Like it’s been sneaking around behind your back, hanging out with rogue cells in alleyways making dirty deals. It’s a horrible feeling, that.
But my whole cancer experience has reset my priorities, which means that my time on the mat is now nonnegotiable. And so, I’ve been spending a lot of time feeling all the great things that my body can do and these are the things I want to focus on.
Before I begin my thank you note, I’m going to apologize for my past transgressions. In part because, despite what my writing might portray, I want you to know, dear readers, that I’m really not all hearts and flowers all the time. And also, by acknowledging the crappy stuff I’ve done to my body, I’m hoping that I can let it go (and my cells can, too) forever.
Ahem. Where do I begin? It seems like I have to begin loooong ago, back in my late teens and early twenties since that seems to be when my poorest choices were made. So here goes: Sorry about all those French fries (although the jury’s still out, I feel twinges of guilt for those high school McDonald’s runs). Sorry for drinking alcohol. Like ever. I’ve never been a big drinker, but that doesn’t seem to matter with the type of breast cancer I had. Sorry for bumming cigarettes at college parties and for my (past) love of cakes, cookies, ice cream, and cannolis. Do I need to atone for that tanning booth experiment that one time? Let’s just say it was the 80s and we were pulling out all the stops for prom. And we didn’t know any better.
In spite of all that—through fat times and thin times, good hair days and bad, you’ve continued to be there for me. So, I thought I’d thank you, publicly. Here goes:
Thank you to my heart for beating and reminding me that I’m alive
Thank you to my belly for moving up and down when I breathe in Savasana
Thanks to my toes for feeling the sand squoosh beneath them
Thanks to my face for feeling the sun shine on it
Thanks to my arms for being so great at hugging
Thanks to my legs for running and skipping and hopping
Thanks to my hips for wiggling and having dance parties with my two year old
Thanks to my vocal chords for making it possible to sing
Thanks to my ears for being able to hear music
Thanks to my wrinkles. If I’m being really honest, I have to admit I don’t like looking at you. But, you remind me that I’ve lived and and that I have gained some wisdom since the tanning booth incident.
Thanks to my blood and lymph and all of those other elements that come together and make sure that my body keeps on keepin’ on each day
Thanks to my musculo-skeletal system for firing up so that I can do yoga and feel what it means to be embodied
Thanks to my taste buds for giving me so much pleasure
Thanks to my brain for being able to process all of this. Sometimes you are too clever for your own good and you make things far too complicated. But all in all, I’m impressed by your hard work.
And finally, a big shout out to my eyebrows. Because, have you seen my eyebrows? I just really love the shape of my eyebrows.
Today’s fast-paced, social media-driven world can sometimes make it feel like we have to get our message across in 15 seconds (or 140 characters) or less. But recently, Yogaglo commissioned some videos of its teachers and I had the great fortune of having an amazing, leisurely conversation with the talented videographer Jonathan Pears. The result is this seven minute video, which I feel captures who I am perfectly. Thanks, Jon (his company is called Back to Awake) & Yogaglo! I love being part of your family.
I hope you enjoy watching it as much as we did making it.
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!