December 8, 2015

I’m Not a Survivor—I Am a Warrior.

Beth Wendell

At first blush, this probably looks like another bit of business written by a yoga instructor—complete with requisite asana (posture) selfie, touting the benefits and importance of regular practice.

That’s not my intent for this piece. In fact, I am writing today about something that few people even know about me.

Yes, I am a yoga instructor. Yes, I have a strong practice. Yes, I am a mother to three young children.

I am also BRCA2 positive.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with that term—it is the name for a deleterious genetic mutation, which brings with it a 55% increased risk of breast cancer and a 45% increased risk of ovarian cancer in its carriers.

In the past 10 years, there has been a major push for breast cancer awareness—including those little arm bands worn by 13-year-old boys that read, “I heart boobies” and “Save the TaTas!”

Trust me, I can take the little trivializing jokes in hand with the enormous benefits of increased awareness. Those numbers up there—those statistics? They’re no joke.

Oh, and the genetic mutation? It’s about as hereditary as eye color and skin tone.

You might see where I’m going here…

Eight years ago, my mother and my sister were both diagnosed with breast cancer, within a few months of one another. Both underwent chemotherapy or radiation and radical surgery, as well as a genetic screening. At the time, I was 39 and wanted no disruption in my happy little life—I didn’t want to know my genetic makeup. I kept convincing myself that I would be fine—that I would be super careful to get regular tests and be very vigilant in my self checks. I was even unmoved by the fact that mammograms had missed both my mother’s and my sister’s tumors.

In truth, I was terrified.

Then something dawned on me. Was I going to stay in a burning building, that would inevitably collapse in on me, and wait to get cancer—just because I was comfortable there? Or was I going to jump out of a window in that building, into a safety net, and run like hell before the disease could get to me?

The organs that had grown, harbored and fed my beautiful babies were the very things that could take their mother away from them. So I steeled myself and got the genetic screening done.

After all, we are supposed to be practicing svadhyaya, right? Self-study and self inquiry? There was information there that could possibly save my life.

The rest of the story you can probably guess—in May 2011, I underwent a radical bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. It was terrifying, painful and mutilating.

Recovery was brutally slow, and I continued a very modified asana practice.

In May 2015, I underwent a total hysterectomy, to ward off ovarian cancer. It was terrifying, painful and mutilating.

Recovery was brutally slow.

And I continued a modified asana practice.

You see, I am telling you all of this, because if you have even the slightest doubt about your family history with this disease, don’t be bullied by your fears that life will never be normal again.

The more you know about yourself and your body, the more logical, informed choices you can make. Trust that your yoga practice will continue to grow and deepen—that it can sustain and comfort and support you—and that you can face whatever challenges that present themselves and wind up stronger and clearer than ever.

The process is slow, and it’s uncomfortable. It changes you dramatically, inside and out—but isn’t that what our practice is for? To teach us the patience, gratitude, strength and endurance to overcome the obstacles on our path?

Oh, and that picture? I chose a challenging pose, not to show off my own practice or to convince you that I’m some hot-shot teacher, but to show you that you won’t necessarily have to give up your physical work. You will have to modify for a time, but this photo came after all of my surgeries were over, not before I started the whole process.

I’m on the other side now—and now I don’t have to worry that cancer will be the thing to take me.

I’m not a survivor—I didn’t have to undergo the ravage that I saw cancer wreak on the minds and bodies of my mother and sister.

But I am a warrior.

I was afraid, but I faced my fears.

You can too—trust me.



Breast Cancer Diagnosis? 7 Ways Yoga Can Help.

Yoga is a Prayer for My Body, Rest for My Mind & Permission for My Soul.


Author: Beth Wendell

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Hannah Maxwell Photography


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