June 21, 2012

Dancing with Death: A Diagnosis of Cancer. ~ Nancy Ellen Miller

It’s Mother’s Day in London and it is a day that fills me with a spectrum of feelings.

At 41, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Images of her arise, of the times we bathed together, with her before me with a crimson line crossing across her chest where her left breast had once been.

Thinking of her, I feel sweetness, grief and love.

After an operation to remove the tumor, my mother’s cancer went into remission. Years later, long after the word cancer fell from our quivering lips, my mother, still in her 40s, hadn’t entirely won the battle.

When I was ten, my friend Carys and I made our own Halloween costumes. We cut out ears of cardboard, drew black whiskers across our cheeks and wore paper-cone noses that twitched.

“Guess who we are?” I said to my mother as she unloaded dishes from the washer in the kitchen. She turned around, staring at us as if a white sheet had fallen over her eyes.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“We’re mice,” I said, “I’m Mickey and she’s Minnie.” She looked at us blank-faced, pale and mute, her hazel eyes empty ovals blinking.

“What are mice?” she asked. I felt hot and uncomfortable, standing there in front of my friend, embarrassed for my mother. Why was she pretending she didn’t know what mice were?

I didn’t realize that it was a malignant tumour in her cerebral cortex that wasn’t allowing her to access specific words, link objects with language or for that matter remember the word “mice.” The cancer had spread furtively upward and was now taking hold of how my mother processed the world.

To fight it, she went through chemotherapy and radiation and all the ghastly side effects: hair loss, weight loss and loss of vitality.

She experienced pain and fatigue. Now and again, she lost her personality. And then it killed her, that cancer, creeping as menacingly as mice would, surreptitiously, into her liver.

My Diagnosis

Today, in London, Mother’s Day has taken on a whole new orbit of meanings for me.

Two days ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I felt the lump several months ago but I hadn’t thought that cancer would happen to me. I thought I was too healthy, too careful.

After all, I’m a yoga teacher, a vegetarian, a runner—I drink juice and take vitamins. When my gynecologist last examined my breasts, she had told me that I had cysts and those persistent little pebble-like pieces there weren’t cancerous.

But over time, pain increased in my left breast…a hard gritty mass felt stuck inside and my nipple flattened and shifted in one direction.

I went to the hospital, just to be sure.

The mammogram itself felt like the beginning of a dance. Folding my body across the machine, the nurse positioned me, the dancer, on the hospital room’s stage, lifting my hand softly upward and letting it fall back into a pose. My arm shaped like a crescent moon caressed a night sky pregnant with the unknown beneath me. I laid there, draped across the cold metal like a lover enveloping another, squeezed in tightly, held in care of the nurse and the cold machine.

The biopsy felt like another kind of dance entirely: intrusive and bitter.

The kind of dance where strobe lights are flashing from the ceiling and techno music corrupts chaotically a peace you wish for so sincerely to keep but can’t.

A needle stuck sharply through my skin and chemicals nullified any feeling in my breast until the doctor thrust another needle in, then another, then another, each followed by a pop, jerk, leaving a wide purple bruise.

A week later, in front of the doctor holding the results of my test, he needn’t speak.

I could see the news on his face; his eyes open, his body leaning forward, face pale and preparing, in that silence that hovers like an airplane waiting to land, searching for the right words.

I have cancer,” I said, somewhere between a statement and a question.

He nodded, “Yes.”And then, “Blah, blah, blah,” with statements I couldn’t process fully.

My body shook; my lungs gasped for air.

“I am sorry,” I said.

For what I was sorry, I’m not sure.

For losing myself. For having cancer. For not knowing what to say.

I felt at that moment that I took flight from my body and that someone else took over, in that vulnerable position, sitting on the hospital chair. She was someone I had never met before.

The feelings I was experiencing were completely new and I had no compass in which to navigate them; a corrosive loneliness, a stinging terror, an anger so confusing that it surrounded itself with denial—a sadness so anxious it locked itself in shame. “This isn’t happening,” I thought, “This isn’t my life.”

It is my life now. I am dancing with death…I have the Big C.

I walked around that day feeling as if I had been thrown into a Salvador Dali painting, into a landscape that was part dream, part nightmare. Clocks weren’t dripping from trees but I had no reference point for my state of mind. I was numb, as if something wouldn’t allow me to feel what was happening.

The world felt surreal and unreachable.

I felt as if I was hovering above my body, unable to connect with my feet, my skin, the air, my hands. “Where have I gone?” I asked, “Please bring me back,” I pleaded.

And then from my pelvis, a shuddering wave rose though my belly and into my sternum, shaking my shoulders and wailing out through my mouth, into sobs and out of my eyes, into tears.

Crying threw me back into my body again—into feeling and sensing the experience.


A stranger on a train once told me I should try reiki, for she sensed I had a calm, healing and focused presence. When I signed up for a course to train in reiki a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the synchronicity of this training falling on the weekend after my diagnosis.

For those that don’t know, reiki is a form of energy healing that originated in Japan.

Rei means spirit and Ki means subtle energy, so the practitioner invokes the conscious healing energy in the universe in through the crown of her head through her chest and arms and hands to heal either herself or another. Diagnosed with spondylosis of the spine, my teacher went to reiki when he had lost mobility in his arms and legs and when his doctor told him his degenerative condition would eventually confine him a wheelchair. Determined not to give up, he practiced three hours of self-healing a day and completely cured himself of his crippling condition.

The teacher paired an intuitive and nearly psychic fellow student to work with me during the healing practice that weekend.

After holding her hands over my tumor and calling upon the right universal healing energies, this woman saw colors of white and green and the image of a dancer, dressed in white released and freed from my core. When she told the group what she saw, the teacher nodded, saying that he saw something similar when he had worked with me; a modern dancer, dressed in an elegant white dress, freed, expressive and creative.

I had seen this dancer before.

She appeared in a dance-theatre piece I wrote last summer and again she arose in my mind as I biked to the course that morning.

I love dancing and I often think that if I could live my life over, I would train professionally in dance. On one level, I feel this dancer is my own body wishing to free itself—to express itself and to flow through life with grace. I feel she is at the same time my creative spirit and my spirit of healing, energizing me and releasing me into the world.

She is part of my healing, part my therapy…she is my guide and my soul.

Or perhaps she is simply part of myself waiting to happen.

Blocking creativity, especially if it is integral to who someone is in this world, to why that person is here, can cause dis-ease.

“You cannot separate your creativity from you,” my reiki teacher says, “it is you.” As he said that, I began to think of this cancer more of a teacher and less as a disease.

Cancer is forcing me to release myself from the limitations I put on my spirit. I have always danced a line between the artist I have always known myself to be with the face I show to the outside world, holding back from truly expressing myself. This cancer may be telling me, “You’re not allowed to do that anymore—you can no longer sacrifice who you are.”

And so here I am, dancing with what is. I hope that you’ll in some way, in whatever way you feel, dance along with me.

Perhaps the greatest support we can give anyone is to allow them to be themselves, fully alive, free in the dreams we have for ourselves and in forms that are dreaming us into this life.


Nancy is a writer, artist, yogini and teacher living in London, England.  She has taught and trained in yoga and meditation in Thailand, India, Nepal, Mexico and Canada. On March 16th, 2012, Nancy was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, or breast cancer. Through living with this disease, Nancy has been learning to trust the way her spirit dances though all things and reform what to her is yoga. (www.paperbirchyoga.com)



Like elephant health & wellness on Facebook.


Editor: Bryonie Wise

Read 10 Comments and Reply

Read 10 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490