On September 11, 2012, my doctor called me and told me I had breast cancer, as she sobbed in between sterile, sad medical jargon.
As I sat at my sun-warmed desk, I listened to her breaths and her words fell away, fading after I heard “cancer.”
That pinky-finger sized pea that I felt one day in my right breast, was actually invasive breast cancer and sort of a huge deal. As a born and raised New Yorker, in the midst of a day already wrought with grief and dubious emotional shrapnel, the world shattered all over again. Having no words to say to anyone, I left my office hearing the loudest silent screams of disbelief.
I had just turned 30. I was planning a wedding. I’d begun taking steps toward a wanted career change by becoming a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, in addition to my career as a mental health counselor. I was feeling emotionally and physically stronger than I’d ever been before.
With all I was facing (lumpectomy, scarring, radiation, chemotherapy), my mind was stuck on something I was ashamed to say. It seemed ridiculous and superficial in comparison—my hair. All of a sudden, thoughts of hair invaded my mind every second. It was the first thing I noticed on others and all I could think about.
My hair—long and blonde with a subtle, beachy-waviness to it that always made friends swoon with envy. I remember a co-worker commenting on how, in the middle of the work day, I could sweep my hair up into a bun and it would look like a stylist worked for hours on it. I just looked at her and smiled. I knew it was great and I had the luxury of not caring too much.
“That’s the best feeling—having something great and not caring. It’s a sense of freedom,” I thought.
It was the same thing with my health and body. I never thought too much about either one, and now they were going away. It’s hard for me to confess that, of all the minutes I spent worrying, almost none of them were about cancer cells. Instead it was hair follicles.
I kept hearing and reading cheesy, over-used cliches like “life is what happens when you are making plans“ and others of that sort. When life actually hits you in the face and makes you stop everything—all your plans, all your dreams—I found there is no quote for that, no words really, just flashes of light and faces, with no sense of beginning, middle or end. There is no more time for cute quotes or exclamation marks or hearts on pages.
Instead, there was anxiety clawing its way from my lungs to my throat and then curling up like a feral cat in my skull. A stranger to me, I have only had the occasional fear of speaking to a large group, which I could get through with some extra deodorant and a shot of needed courage and support from friends.
This choking sensation was all new. The anxiety felt somewhat like a tweed pillow smothering my face. Dry and itchy and hard, with no space for air or light. I found it hard to fully breathe in and then harder to breathe out. In order to take it all in and stay sane, I tried using the meditation skills that I learned in yoga.
The first time I tried using this technique for my hair anxiety was actually the day after hearing the word “cancer“ from my doctor. In my yoga teacher training, I was fortunate enough to have learned from an amazing teacher, how to cultivate a sense of quiet within my mind. I was good at finding it, keeping my first chakra grounded and moving upwards from there.
In training, I used to sit for an hour and find that when it was over and time to go, it felt more like 10 minutes had passed. I would notice my head would tilt towards the sky and I would lose myself—and time. So I sat on a pillow under the skylight in the condo I shared with my fiance, and soaked in the sun in Lotus position. I tried to calm and still my mind and take some breaths in from my lungs and expand my belly.
Four minutes later, I was hacking up vomit as I crawled into the bathroom.
I tried it again a few days later. A few days of crying on the phone to my sisters and mother, and emotional diarrhea to everyone I could find who would listen. It was frightening to think that in addition to my hair, health and all that I was losing, I might also lose my ability to be at peace. It might be part of the aftermath. It will be the “new normal,” as I heard everyone saying.
What I found, try after try, was that I could sit for about five minutes, then 10, then 15. I found that the quiet peace I cultivated as I trained to teach others was there, nesting inside my core, waiting to be called and to grow bigger and more bad-ass with the increasing attention.
What I realized in my 10 minutes of quiet was that I had beautiful hair—and that I thought I didn’t care, but I did. With all my yogic ideas about self and who I was, I was trying to be less materialistic, less self-involved than was the case.
But now I was recognizing that some part of my identity was wrapped up in my blonde bun.
The quiet was the thing that helped me let my mane woes just be. In this world where we’re told to “let it go,” I could not. Where would it go? If I was letting go, then my hair could fall out and I wouldn’t care, right? No, I would care. I would scream and cry and destroy things and hate it. And it would still always be. So I imagined just letting that feeling be.
This idea floated around my head for a little while until I saw it like the stone that’s on a ring I don’t wear anymore: beautiful, but not a part of me. Just a beautiful thing, like so much in this world.
The reality of losing my hair, facing chemotherapy and the nightmare of twists and stabs that come with cancer, was also the dissolving of my relationship. The hair falls away and I realized it was not my identity, not me at all. All that hot fuss before something happens, and then it’s over.
To lose it, that was actually freeing. I don’t think I would take back this experience. I can’t un-know what I learned, nor would I want to.
“When life throws you a curve, it’s to teach you how to bend.” ~ Anonymous
I read this before cancer and thought, “Well, that’s nice, but I do yoga. I am really bendy.”
“Suffering is a revelation. One discovers things one never discovered before.” ~ Oscar Wilde.
I discovered through suffering that I did care—about normal superficial, no wait, actually human things. I discovered compassion for myself, and even more compassion for others. I discovered a way to really know myself, what I need and don’t need, want and don’t want. I make quicker, better decisions. (That’s a major perk, I am finding.)
Now I see that the quotes I once thought were cheesy, were gems from others who went through something. I want to quote from the rooftops now! It’s not cheese at all, but more like wine—the wine that’s perfectly-aged and a little cool, perfect and soothing. But reading a quote without life experience is like sniffing the wine and not tasting. That’s what I was doing before, sniffing around at life and myself, but never taking that desired satiating, devouring gulp.
I had cancer. I lost my hair. And I did care. That tweed pillow of anxiety over my face turned to air rushing in on all sides.
My quiet got so loud, there was no searching for it anymore. My peace was not gone. My self and my heart are the same, but more expansive with compassion.
After bowing to the skyline, to New York and to myself, I am going to go dancing. Because a new normal for me is actually just a new realization, a new love and a new respect—an awe for my body and some sprouts of hair.
Author: Amanda Anastasio
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Evil Erin/Flickr