Paying it Forward in the Flow

A woman shares the story of her journey with multiple cancer types, including the same one that her mother died from.

Growing up, I had a vision of adulthood. I assumed it would mirror my parents’ – marriage, kids, work, travel, retirement and enjoying time with grandkids. I came from a long lineage of healthy elders, all who lived well into their 90s. When my mother was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer, the first woman in our family, we all assumed it would be a bump in the road. It was not. After six years in remission, her cancer returned and took her life while I was pregnant with my second child.

She was supposed to be here. Nothing about her death made sense. When I was suddenly diagnosed with my own cancer two years later, my understanding of the world was eternally shifted. Like my mom, I was healthy, active and known among my friends as the one who was always “doing things right.” I exercised daily, ate organic foods, used non-toxic products and practiced yoga. Had it not been for a routine blood test revealing that something was slightly off, I wouldn’t have known until it was far too late that leukemia was taking root in my bones.

It took five months, six doctors and two bone marrow biopsies to confirm that I had acute myeloid leukemia (AML). I was blessed to have caught it early and even more blessed to have an anonymous donor in Germany who was willing to share her stem cells a year after my diagnosis.

The process of getting to transplant was brutal. I left behind my two young children to be brought to the brink of death as my immune system was erased and rebuilt. I spent three months battling fevers and an infection that nearly led to my demise. Throughout it all, I believed I would beat it. I would not, under any circumstances, leave my children. I researched and sought out stories of young adult survivors everywhere. I learned even more about mindfulness and healthy practices and vision boarded the future I wanted to believe was still possible.

Most importantly, I moved my body every single day. I was known in the hospital as “Supergirl,” walking near miles with my IV pole through the halls. I rode an ancient recumbent bike tucked away on my unit and figured out how to adapt my yoga practice with the restrictions I had in place. Just months after chemo, I ran in my first triathlon.

I believe it was a combination of my exceptional medical care team, my donor, my mindfulness and movement that allowed me to recover quickly. I was proud to be not just a survivor but a ‘thriver.’ Yet, five years after transplant, a routine mammogram suggested that my cancer journey wasn’t as neatly finished as I hoped.

My breast cancer diagnosis felt like a cruel joke. If I hadn’t been doing things ‘right’ before, I felt I had surely gotten everything right this time. I questioned what I was doing wrong that as I celebrated my 40th birthday and this much-anticipated anniversary of remission, this would happen now. Worse, it was the cancer that took my mom.

Blessed a second time, I learned that my cancer was caught very early. With an early-stage diagnosis, my treatment was far less brutal than AML. This year, I’m lucky to celebrate another milestone: five years in remission from breast cancer and 10 years post-transplant from AML.

My yoga and movement practice has been pivotal in helping me maintain emotional balance and physical wellness throughout. I’ve done things I didn’t realize I was capable of as I learned to rebuild my body and mindset. When I began exploring the science behind why movement mattered so much in supporting our immunity, I set out on a mission to help bring this practice to those going through their own journeys now.

I didn’t intend to become a yoga teacher, but as I learned through cancer, the path we set out on is not the one we may end up following. The detours often lead to places, people and possibilities that we couldn’t have conceived of before. Today, I’m grateful to be able to lead yoga for cancer classes with Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland Medical System and virtual students around the world.

I know now that no amount of ‘right’ things can prevent cancer. We do our best and that is good enough. I’m more comfortable with uncertainty because I’ve learned to better navigate the unexpected shifts. Those ebbs and flows have allowed me to connect with people of all walks of life and learn from them as I try to help them through their own transitions. I didn’t know how to do that for my mom – my journey taught me the way. It’s a gift to be able to pay it forward now.

You can learn more about Jessica’s group and private yoga for cancer and survivorship classes in the y4c and LYT® Yoga methods at jessicahensleyyoga.com. Find Jessica on Instagram or Facebook @jessicahensleyyoga for movement, motivation, and Tenacious Tuesdays each week.

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