Mid-November in California and it was already dark by 5:30pm. I had just rushed home from work to change clothes so I could walk to a nearby hot yoga studio for a class. My entire family (who lived in different states) was meeting up to take a cruise to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary so I had about a month to try to get a tiny bit in shape before having to wear a swimsuit. No sooner had I slung my yoga mat over my back & was walking to the door when the phone rang and as is typical for cell phones, it was already in my hand.
The call came from my surgeon. To be honest, I was very cavalier about the procedure…I hadn’t even told my parents or many friends about the appointment. In fact, the day I had it, I got up early and just walked on my own to the hospital for the surgery (only 12 blocks from my house) as though it was part of a normal morning routine. Because they wouldn’t release me on my own after coming off the anesthesia, I arranged for a dear friend to picked me up. It was outpatient exploratory surgery and to me that meant no big deal. Heck, after all I was approved for yoga just a few days later. Even at the moment when I got the call I was confident the surgeon was going to say that they found a lump but it was benign. Or say, as they predicted, it was just a cyst & they removed it. I had my first biopsy on that breast 15 years prior and had multiple occasions of having this kind of conversation so it wasn’t new. As soon as I got the word “hello” out of my mouth, my surgeon (who’s bedside manner was direct to say the least) quickly said she got the tests back from the lab from the area they had removed during surgery. Next, in the span of about a minute, all I heard was carcinoma, positive, cancer, radiation, chemo, lumpectomy, mastectomy, nipples, tamoxifen, lymph nodes, and surgery. I swear she uttered all those words in a matter of 2 full sentences, which probably wasn’t really the case but it felt like it. She then said a nurse would be calling who could give me more clarity as to timing but I needed to make some decisions and the sooner the better. She asked if I had any questions, then she hung up.
Huh? Did that just happen? That call? Did she just tell me I had breast cancer over the phone?
Of course I was in shock. Not even denial because I couldn’t even process it. I think the entire call was less than 6 minutes. I was still standing in the same exact spot in my dimly lit doorway. As my mind raced and I contemplated what I heard and how this would change my life, I felt the need to just pretend the call was no big deal.
So….I continued out the door and I went to yoga.
I started walking the 4 blocks in the dark trying to replay the conversation I just had on the phone and halfway there the nurse called. She encouragingly reminded me that it looked like they caught “it” in the earliest stage possible. She mentioned setting up time with the genetic counselor, that I needed to pick an oncologist, that I should decide on a reconstructive surgeon if I choose that route and then she rattled off potential dates for the next surgery, etc. She had a calming demeanor, an understanding voice and it was obvious she was accustomed to these difficult conversations. I was still walking and didn’t have a pen (only my yoga mat, water bottle, house keys and phone) and I asked her if she could call me back in a few hours because I wanted to make some notes and likely would have more questions for her as I took it all in. Even though it would be late, she said definitely.
By this point I was at the hot yoga studio. I checked into class, went into the studio (which was already filling with people) and I found my usual spot. I unrolled my yoga mat & just laid down flat on my back until the instructor started. My eyes were open and I was staring at the paneled ceiling. I’m sure I didn’t look any different than the people around me and I was appreciating the feeling of normalcy and fitting in, just like it was any other class I had taken. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was just lying still for a minute, but my head was spinning and I could feel my eyes fill. Then tears started to roll down my cheeks. Not sobbing, just one or two tears when I would blink. The studio was kept dim and was packed full of people sitting or lying quietly all around me while light, calming music played. When the instructor came in and we started doing the poses, I was looking in the mirror and was relieved that you couldn’t see that the tears were still filling my eyes. Luckily it was a hot and humid studio so everyone had moisture dripping down their faces and my cheeks didn’t look out of place. The yoga poses were a welcome distraction to occupy my mind, but my eyes stayed pools of water. As we went further into the class, tears gradually rolled down…. until we did the pose downward facing dog. I actually started to giggle (a faux pas in a yoga class) because for some reason I couldn’t cry in that position. If you’re not familiar with the pose, it’s somewhat of a standard pose in most classes and involves planting both feet and also your palms on to the mat with your body making somewhat of an inverted “V” shape. During the flow of the movements from posture to posture, every time we would stand upright tears would come to my eyes, but then going down to downward facing dog, nothing. For some reason having my head upside down was preventing the tears from forming. It was the perfect way to stop my wallowing and a welcome distraction to keep me focused on yoga. And it was a funny enough thing to really keep me out of a funk for at least a bit.
Still to this day when I go to yoga, or anything for that matter, I look at the people next to me and think of what may be happening in their lives that I may not see. Did they just get bad news? Are they struggling with something? Do they really want to cry and just can’t because we are doing downward facing dog? I’m sure no one would have guessed that night in class that I had just been told I had cancer. It is a good reminder we should be kind to everyone because we don’t know the burdens others carry. Someday we may be in their shoes and need that kindness in return.
It may seem odd that I still went to yoga after receiving what should have been a devastating call. But going there that night was helping me to keep moving forward. Things happen in our lives. The goal is to just keep going. Life doesn’t stop just because we have bumps (or lumps) in the road. Life is what we make of it, all the way to our final breath. I knew from the moment I got the news, there must be a purpose to this chapter in my life. And part of that purpose is to be there for others who may be dealing with something similar.
The next few years had a lot of bumps (7 surgeries in all) to overcome but I had family, friends and even strangers along for the ride who helped me to keep looking ahead. We all need to have hope and it’s important to find people who will give you that hope. I’m writing about my experiences to help those of you who may be frozen in one place from getting some terrible news or having something bad happen.
Do not waste today fretting over yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. Live for today. And just keep moving forward.