My journey with breast cancer in 2011 at age thirty-six, diagnosed just three months after being married, is a topic with which those who know me are familiar. I recently had a friend come to me to ask me how Chris and I worked through such a challenging trial during our first year of marriage. She was genuinely interested in how we managed all of the stressors together. I share this to be of assistance to others going through the similar experiences. You might not have a partner and you may not find this advice helpful in your situation, though it is my hope to offer these experiences as someone who has been through a challenging and transformational journey with my husband as my witness. There is always a choice with an outcome of empowerment for each and every being. I’m hoping to offer some kind assistance to those who are going through similar circumstances by openly sharing my story with my husband.
When Chris and I got married last October 2010, we had no idea that three months later in January 2011, I would be diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 36, vibrantly healthy, able to do five hours of bodywork in one day, exercise and sleep with no notable aches and pains, and absolutely no symptoms whatsoever. My disease was silent, and had silently existed undetected through my study with some our world’s most profound healers since 2007 when a breast thermography documented my malignant tumor in growth ( ignored by my western doctors and my family, because no one thought it would be possible for a thirty-three year old woman to have breast cancer). This complete denial of a possible life threatening disease, is absolutely astonishing; something that I am still processing.
I had been in study for three months full-time with Dr. Claudia Welch, six months with Dr. Vasant Lad, veteran Yogis, well-known herbalists and veteran massage therapists and classmates. I had many hands laid on me therapeutically and diagnostically (conservatively over 400 times in the two years preceding my diagnosis). I appeared healthy and vital.
I had even volunteered myself for a clinical practicum in front of my class with Dr. Lad who executed a detailed intake in front of forty other classmates. He noted fibrocystic changes in the breast among other Kapha-genic traits, but after a pulse, tongue, iris analysis and palpation, nothing stood out. I am very grateful for the teachings of Ayurveda through the magical Dr. Lad, all of my Ayurvedic friends, and all of my massage teachers and friends. This is a testament about the silent, non-perceivable quality of one of the deadliest killers to human kind on earth, Breast Cancer. But it is just the setting for the story I intend to tell about how to go through major health challenges with your partner, or, how we did it, sans guidebook.
After learning my diagnosis, my first response to Chris was simply, “I am so sorry.” I felt so incredibly sorrowful for this beautiful spirit whom I had just married. How unfair for him! I wanted to offer him my best in our future life together: a clean bill of health, a family, a predictable and happy road ahead. Instead, we were embarking on a road of uncertainty, financial strain, emotional intensity and a year-long journey filled with doctors appointments, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Perfect! Perfectly tragic, I thought. I most definitely felt more sadness for Chris than I did for myself. I empathized with him. My choice of partner challenged within the first three months of our marriage and what I came to find out was the most miraculous dream of all: I chose correctly.
Enter Chris: definitely not a “ladies” man, often times saying the really “wrong thing” when we were first getting to know each other. Thunder and lightening did not strike when we met. “Who is this awkward guy?” I shared with my best girlfriends. We went out eight times before he tried to kiss me for the first time and I sort of turned my cheek (ouch). It wasn’t until I realized something was going on absolutely beyond the reach of any of my prior experiences, that I opened up to the experience. And boy, am I glad I did. I love Chris more each day. Sometimes we love people instantly and immediately, but I have found that kind of love can ebb and flow and deteriorate after lightening crashes initially. Chris’ character, his values, his day to day presence fills so much space, nurtures me and honors me. This is the real stuff of deep friendship and partnership. Had I been too distracted or too stupid, I may not have been able to see this powerful match between us.
Chris has many traits though that I admire and needed in my life, as a man, teacher, lover and nurturer. He has worked as a professional caregiver for many years to clients with severe mental, emotional and physical disabilities. He is one of the most accepting and non-judgmental people I have ever met. He teaches me on a daily basis to accept, move closer to non-judgement, and dignify everyone, no matter what their economic, social, physical, or health status in life.
Here’s how Chris responded to my diagnosis (his words):
1. State of shock
2. State of Denial (He was “hoping for the best,” but it can’t be true.)
3. Sadness and grief for himself and for me because he loved me.
4. Coming to a place of acceptance.
During my treatment, here’s an explanation of how Chris approached my health transition (in his words):
• Focus on the true essence of the human being and do not focus on the symptoms. See a person’s true essence, focusing on who they really are. Remind them of this often through jokes, touching, talking or hugging.
• Focus on the present. When we couldn’t go out and do things because I felt too weak, debilitated, or just didn’t want to be around other people, surrender to “what is” and do what was right in front of you. This means Chris didn’t focus on the things we couldn’t go out and do, he just cuddled down right beside me to meet me right where I was in the moment.
• Focus on the good qualities of the human being. Do not place too much emphasis on the disease.
• Use Humor. When I began chemotherapy, we anticipated some very unpleasant side effects coming my way, but really had no idea what they were going to be until they started happening. Most side effects vary tremendously from person to person. I had a long, thick beautiful head of hair. Four weeks into the chemotherapy, within a matter of a few days, half of it had fallen out. We went together to the hair salon (less mess at home) and had my stylist shave it off. Chris and I both loved my long, thick feminine hair. I can honestly say, it was more difficult losing my hair than losing my left breast; this does not make total sense to me, but if you want to ask me about it, I would be happy to discuss it. A bit of time passed before both of us could get used to the new look. Even though I had a gorgeous human hair wig funded entirely by my health insurance, I was not comfortable with this for many months. When it was time to go to bed at night, Chris would rub my head lovingly. We adopted the name “peach fuzz” for me. Because all I had left on my head was a little peach fuzz. Humor, compassion and love are the nectar of healing.
Chris focused his process on being as steady and reliable as possible. He was “my rock.” He wanted to support me in the way he normally would, and interact with me this same way. He honored my requests for to allow me process my “news” first before telling anyone else. He cleared his busy schedule to go to every doctor’s doctors appointment with me. He still goes with me to every appointment. Chris has never imposed any views of how he thought I “should” be treated medically, supporting me through each decision process. I was first vehemently opposed to radiation and then I changed my mind through specialist consults, consideration and more research.
Chris explains that his process has made him more compassionate and understanding. His advice: be in the now moment and that life is unpredictable. Life is what happens when you get a call at two in the morning.
Writing this article, I am reminded of the bare truth of a soul: when you are tipping your hat to death “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Steve Jobs said this and I couldn’t agree more. I am grateful to be reminded of this truth repeatedly, because it allows me to live as authentically as possible each and every moment of the day.
The Mindful Body in Boulder, Colorado will be launching a non-profit organization in 2012 to support the ongoing needs of breast cancer patients during their treatment.