For Richard and Pat
“My name is Julie, and I had breast cancer.”
These are the words I speak when a new person joins the cancer survivors yoga class I attend. And last week brought another recruit. By way of introduction, each of us in the class gives our name and diagnosis, the touchstone we all share.
I joined this class shortly after my diagnosis, choosing it above the standard yoga classes I’d been attending because I was looking for every positive support I could find – leaving no magic stone left unturned — during my time of treatment. I hoped that the class would unlock some secret that would see me through.
That was more than 3 years ago.
Because of work, holidays, and other preoccupations, I have not always been able to attend the class regularly, but have re-committed to going because, as several of my classmates have remarked, it is therapeutic. At the beginning of each session, we all check in, reporting how we are feeling, physically and mentally. Besides the conventional asanas, the class incorporates meditation, guided imagery, and chant, with a focus on moving energy through the body and healing.
Although we all stand under the same umbrella, the one with the large letter C stamped on it, our experiences with the disease have varied as much as our lives. Most of us have dealt with breast cancer, Pat and Anne 11 years ago, Helen, Roxanne, Meg, and I more recently. Lija is currently undergoing rigorous standard treatment, while Therese chose alternative routes. Diane is being monitored to determine her best approach.
A few in the group have had other types of cancer. Our newest member, Mary, had cervical cancer many years ago. Magda is our dearest inspiration. Her courage in undergoing experimental therapy for melanoma tells of the strength of human nature and the miracles medicine can still bring about.
Our ages span five decades; our diagnoses fall all along the continuum from stage 0 (yes, there is such a thing with breast cancer) all the way to stage 4, the dreaded metastasis. Likewise, our treatments vary widely and include the whole range of approaches, from observation and surgery to radiation, chemotherapy, and continuing drug therapy.
For all of us, this yoga class is the only place we can be entirely honest about our situations, where we don’t have to explain ourselves or our fears. Like soldiers after combat, we are linked by our experience.
At lunch after class, we talk about research developments, share tips about insomnia and nutrition, discuss which doctors to see (and which to avoid), which supplements to take, and what helps us deal with pain and anxiety. But we also talk about travel, world and national news, politics, and our families. We rejoice when the results from a check-up are positive, and gather closer when one of us receives disheartening news. Some of us come to class regularly, some only sporadically, and sadly, some will never return.
In the past few months, we’ve suffered the loss of two of our most courageous members.
Richard inspired us with his positive outlook and his willingness to speak plainly to help others deal with the trauma of their diagnosis. I once joked with him, saying that he should get a commission from his doctors for promoting their care at the many support activities he attended in the community. He replied simply, “These people saved my life.” Not long ago, we learned that he would pass up a round of golf to come to class.
Pat had lived with cancer for 17 years, 13 of those with the envied NED (no evidence of disease). As a nurse, she knew better than most what might come, and was determined to go down her path with grace. She died on New Year’s Eve, and it has only been since then that many of us learned of her talents in painting and calligraphy. Her favorite character from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories was Piglet, and she kept a small figurine of him hanging from the lamp by her bed.
Most of us like to feel a part of something – and to be part of this class is both a privilege and a blessing. My life has been immeasurably enriched by this circle of support. From members of this group I’ve learned that it is possible to live, yes really live, with this disease, even for those at stage 4. It’s not a group I would have chosen to join, if I had such a choice, but there’s no better place to be.