PRACTICING WITH CANCER
When I began yoga, it was a tremendous a refuge for me. It saved me from debilitating depression and offered me a new, skillful way of looking at the world. Love and bliss were my experience of yoga for quite a long time. I began to shift my pessimistic world-view into one where I saw the world as a friendly place.
Over the years, the glow and newness of the practice wore off. I’ve had periods of time where I’ve struggled to show up or stay on my mat. I’ve had moments when I’ve felt disillusioned with the teachings. Sometimes my meditations have been just sitting down, getting up, and sitting back down again - over and over. And yet the act of showing up over and over to my yoga and Buddhist practices have evolved to become a discipline that is a very inward, supportive, and clarifying part of my life. The heart of keeping yoga relevant and meaningful for me, has been in accepting life as clearly as I can and not denying the very real first principle of Buddhism: that suffering actually does exist.This yoga is not a magical pill which manifests happiness through denial. The very real suffering of this life must be looked into for the practice to have any real power at all.
I no longer need to rely on an outside influences such as a charismatic teacher to lead me, a rocking soundtrack for entertainment, or the promise of a magical belief to soothe me. Instead, I prefer a quiet space in the early morning, where I trust my own rhythms and build an internal, supportive space for my asana practice to grow some depth. A 15-minute period of time in the afternoon to be still and breathe is now a refuge for me. I find that I lean into quiet teachers who see my practice and/or offer me insight that I can’t find for myself, rather than ones who provide a group dynamic that can only be duplicated in his or her classes. This inward, independent practice is where my journey has taken me. It has sustained me over time. And this inward, personal practice has shown me that the fourth principle of Buddhism is also very real: through dedicated practice, insight, cultivating discipline and mindfulness, working with the mind in meditation - there is an end to our suffering. And so it goes. And practice takes on a new form. A more subtle form. Again.
This summer, a nagging nighttime nerve pain in my shoulder was eventually diagnosed - not as a pinched nerve in my cervical spine as originally thought, but rather as an unknown mass growing in the center of my chest. It has grown around my aorta and is pushing up against the superior vena cava on the right side of my heart. This past Wednesday after many tests and a biopsy surgery, I received an official diagnosis. Mediastinal Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. CANCER.
And so the yoga continues with a new teacher. And yes, suffering is real. Facing death is real, and facing aversion is so palpable that it’s pressed right up against my nose every day. If there were ever a big, loud monastery bell ringing in my life, saying, “wake up, wake up!” this is it. It’s my time to pay attention, because if I look away for an instant or move towards denial – I suffer.
My practice is different, but it is constantly there. Now instead of holding a pose for a certain amount of time, I sit calmly and take 24 slow, deep breaths while the phlebotomist draws those 4 viles of blood. I’m grateful she found a vein quickly, just as I'm grateful for the sensation of relief after leaving a long hold in Parsvakonasana. During surgery prep, I close my eyes and breath and practice the Ashtanga Primary Series in my mind. From more blood draws to the IV prep to being rolled into the operating room, I get through half of the standing series. “Remember you’ve made it to Ardha Baddha Padmottonasana, and see if you can pick up there when you wake.” I thought. And then as the anesthesiologist puts me to sleep in the operating room, I slip in my first two imaginary mental jump throughs, and I’m grounded. "Ardha Baddha Padma Pascimottonasana is your new marker to wake up to." The little voice in my head says, grateful to have a job it is familiar with. During the bone marrow retrieval on Thursday, I was able to be present with discomfort and really feel the process without fear, letting the doctor know how much I was actually feeling, rather than reacting to how much I was afraid to feel. Meditation, thank you for teaching me to sit when I want to run. It’s as the Bhagavad Gita promises: no effort on this journey is ever wasted. The practice itself just changes shape the way the banks of a river twist and turn, containing the water - calm or rough, fast or slow, narrow or wide – and direct the river in it’s ever-changing container.
And mostly I’m able to stay present. Present with the fear of leaving my husband and three kids alone, present with my aversion to hospitals and needles and procedures, present and trying not to cling to the good stuff happening right now even while we are knee deep in shit. I’m able to face reality as best I can and research the hell out of this Mediastinal Large B-cell Lymphoma until I understand the reality of what I’m practicing with. The banks of my river have changed, and I need to understand the new terrain. The scenery is surprising. I have laughed more in the last ten days than I have in years. I have had a strong support group materialize out of nowhere. My kids and husband and siblings and parents and in-laws and friends and students and all of our co-workers have all showed up for us. And just like the Randy Newman song goes, human kindness is overflowing. The mystical really is found in the mundane. There is something newly and innately wonderful about holding my husband’s hand, listening (really listening) to my kids, and having my mother and sisters close by again.
I’ve been on the beginning stages of treatment with oral steroids. Monday brings me a new adventure – a PET scan. On Tuesday I start the beginnings of chemo, and our final staging and genetic markers will be taken into treatment consideration.
Nothing is permanent. Not the surgery I’ve already been through, or the fear of leaving my family, or my aversion to needles. Not my health, not my sickness, not even my hair. My life – our lives – are in constant shift. That is the natural way. That is a good thing. The world is still a friendly place even with all of its odd, twisted, surprising elements.
I will miss teaching. I DO miss teaching. And as my friend Julie says: I’m sure this will end up being a story we refer back to as, “Remember that time when...?” (And I add... "when I almost died?") This I know - I'll be back teaching as soon as I am able.
STAYING IN THE KNOW: If you’re interested in the medical updates, procedures, prognosis, and the like, consider following our caringbridge.com journal where my husband and I will update the details as regularly as we can.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP? This is a question that I keep getting over and over… Keep me laughing. While I have to pull back from teaching and practicing in public, human contact has been a huge support for me. I love dark humor. A well placed bald joke or a lymphomaniac comment are always welcome. I’m also welcoming boxes of kittens, that newborn baby smell (can you put that in a box?) and any other gut-busting antics. It turns out, that life is pretty funny. Come laugh with us. I’m on Facebook, and email.
Positive cancer stories. The prognosis seems good from where we are right now. Personal stories make that positive prognosis more real, and help give me courage for the daily poking and proding I have to face. Do you have a loved one who was cured of lymphoma? That’s a lovely share for me right now.
And that really is more than enough. Honestly. But if it doesn’t feel like enough - in lieu of food which can be overwhelming in content and unfamiliarity, or gifts that may or may not be used, here are a few tangible ways we could use a little help.
If you’re a dog person: Walk my sweet dog? I know this sounds too simple, but it is often just too much for all of us at home to manage getting our active Samoyed out for a short walk or taking the time to brush her. She has been intuitively sensing the change in the house and could use a little extra attention right now.
If you’re someone who lives close by: Send me a text when you pop into the store. Sometimes I just need a little something for the kids’ lunches. And we are happy to reimburse.
If you have 20 minutes, are not allergic to animals and have some energy to burn: feel free to come by and vacuum for a few minutes. (Pet hair, oh my!)
If you want to send a small gift, I would love a small contribution toward a Udemy course or audible book to listen to during my chemotherapy treatments. Neither website seem to have a solid way to do Gift Certificates, so I set up a PayPal link. It's http://www.paypal.me.laurieg
Thank you all for the love and support that's been flowing in.
It means everything.