Ellen was a teacher, drug/alcohol counselor and school counselor for 32 years. Always being fairly “unique,” she was diagnosed with a unique form of breast cancer – one tumor followed by two more malignant tumors – in 2007. Ellen and her husband, although native New Yorkers, have lived in Seattle for 41 years. They have two grown children, two grandchildren and two standard poodles.
My life was on an even keel. I was a high school counselor, my husband, a research scientist. Our children were grown. We were involved with family, friends, exercise, work and our standard poodles. One day, a curve ball was thrown my way. That curve ball was cancer. My life was no longer on an even keel.
My husband and I were thrown into the world of decisions – meetings with doctors, second opinions and treatment options. We had a plan in place—an aggressive plan for breast cancer. I opted for the full meal deal – double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and five years of hormone therapy.
Before cancer, taking my dogs on long daily walks was a great stress reducer. After my surgery and during chemo, my oncologist insisted I continue to walk. Thirty minutes a day. Thirty minutes was now equivalent to a triathlon. If I could, I would crawl home. Yet, one step at a time, one poodle at each side, I walked. And walked. And walked. Walking was part of my healing. Before cancer, I started a yoga class. It was a bit challenging but I liked it. During treatment, I continued to attend my yoga class. My hair was falling out and I wore a baseball cap. My reconstruction had not begun and this was awkward at best. The poses were too hard. I couldn’t do them. I pictured fleeing from the room. I. Stayed. On. The. Mat. No matter what. No fleeing for me. My husband was on his mat next to mine. Sometimes, he’d reach over and take my hand. At the end of class, we’d lie still in a “corpse” pose for Shavasana, known as the final relaxation pose. This took on a new meaning. Trying to soothe my racing thoughts, I tasted my own tears as they trickled down my face. Tears of fear. Tears of gratitude. Tears of being. Simply being. Yoga was part of my healing.
Before cancer, I often told myself that I had to slow down. I’m like a hyperactive hummingbird, flitting from one activity to the next. During treatment, I didn’t flit as much, but I was stressed out. My job depleted me. My health depleted me. My world depleted me. A friend gave me a meditation tape. She was a cancer survivor and said it had really helped calm her mind. I gave it a try. The tape was thirty minutes. I sat in my chair with my headphones on and listened to the gentle but crashing waves. Every now and then, a bell would chime. That’s it. I began to breathe. I inhaled serenity. I exhaled anxiety. Over and over. I envisioned those hostile toxic cancer cells gone from my body. Instead, I was encased in warmth and beauty. The thirty minutes went by quickly, and I was somewhat restored.
Meditation was part of my healing. Before cancer, I went to the gym before work. After treatment, I resumed my exercise habits. One day, I noticed a group of indoor cyclists. The music was blaring, the sweat was pouring, and the energy seemed positive. I approached the instructor. I asked if she thought a cancer survivor who never took a spin class was a fit for this type of exercise. I was also older than most of the cyclists. She was encouraging. I decided to give it a “spin.” I loved it. I visualized myself healthy, vibrant and strong. I kept moving without going anywhere. I am still spinning as fast as I can without going anywhere – except to a better place in my mind. Cycling was part of my healing. I’ve attempted to incorporate these tools in my life, and they continue to serve me well. They are part of my ongoing recovery.
It’s close to 10 years since my diagnosis. Did I heal? Like any trauma, I can be re-activated. I’ve learned to live with this. Cancer is a part of me. But it is not the biggest part of me. It does not define me. Perhaps that is what it means to be healed.