7 Yoga Truths for Cancer & Life

Summertime will always put me in a reflective state. It seems to be my season of challenge, transition and transformation after being diagnosed with a Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor in 2014.

This time last year, I was deep into my 30-day, 200 hour yoga teacher training “intensive”, which is the most accurate description of the experience. I have never pushed myself more physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I cried therapeutic tears everyday and was surprised how much unresolved trauma I had stored in my body because of cancer. It was the best gift I have given myself and I graduated the program with so much more than a deeper understanding of the physical practice.

One of the many concepts that resonated with me during the 30 days was the Seven Axioms of Teacher Training. Over the last year, as I’ve continued to ride the rollercoaster of illness, these universal truths have been comforting reminders.

  1. You’re exactly where you’re suppose to be. This is a hard one to accept when an illness is involved. When I was sick, if someone said this to me, I probably would’ve punched them in the face, but now, I get it. I would give back cancer in a nano-second, but that means I would also have to give back the meaningful friendships I’ve created, the completion of the El Camino de Santiago, yoga teacher training, my career as a writer, my role at the FDA, my thirst for adventure, etcetera. All these wonderful things are a result of cancer. So, am I exactly where I’m suppose to be? Unfortunately and fortunately, yes.
  2. Fear and pain are life’s greatest teachers. Do I need to say anything more? I have learned so much from illness because it has brought on fear and pain I never realize existed and through that same fear and pain, I have learned how to live and not just exist. Cancer has taught me that I am so very strong, resilient and courageous, a word that makes me roll my eyes. I have been able to do things I never thought I’d be able to do because of cancer. For instance, before cancer I coward at the idea of needles. Now, I could give myself an injection while climbing a mountain at the same time. Cancer has also taught me deep compassion for my fellow humans. Others are often shocked when I tell them how the disease has impacted my life because I look like a normal, healthy, 37-year-old.  This is proof we never know what others have going on based on outward appearances and for that, I am kinder to people.
  3. Laughter and play are the fountains of youth. I find nothing fun about cancer. I often say it is the opposite of fun. But, I think within the non-fun, it is important to keep laughing and retain a childlike sense of play. In moments where it’s too hard to keep things light, call for backup. My husband is a major source of keeping me laughing and has succeed to make me smile in dark moments. When he’s not around, I watch YouTube and am surprised how much time I can spend watching puppy videos.
  4. Exercise and rest are the keys to vibrant health. We all know this, yet, so many of us ignore it. Before cancer, I exercised like crazy, at the expense of sleep. I believe, sleep deprivation was a contributing factor to my diagnosis. Now, I make sure I get at least eight hours and move my body every day. I wouldn’t describe myself as having vibrant health, but I would say I am more fit that the average person, which has been one of my secrets to managing a chronic illness.
  5. Touch and intimacy are basic human needs. We’ve all seen the study about babies who do not thrive when they are not touched and cuddled, yet, as we grow older, we assume that need dwindles. If you’re unwell, you should double-up the hugs and love.
  6. Everything is impermanent. For me, this is the most powerful axiom. It’s context is that everything is temporary. We all walk around with an illusion of control, which is not the case. When you look deeply, you will see that there are no guarantees. Health is temporary. Sickness is temporary. Happiness is temporary. Sadness is temporary. One of the reasons loss of anything is so hard to accept is because we do not expect change. We want our lives to continue on without any uncomfortable interruption. And when the interruption occurs, we are surprised and hurt. Accepting that everything is impermanent has given me great comfort. It has made the natural ups and downs easier to accept. And most important, it has taught me to live each day as if tomorrow is not guaranteed, because it is not.
  7. Everything is connected. I vividly remember the days and weeks after surgeries and chemotherapy concluded. I felt this euphoric connection to everyone and everything down to the core of my bones. Perhaps it was a high level of relief, trauma or PTSD, but I was so happy to be alive and enthralled with everything. I would go for a walk in my neighborhood and notice the tiniest, most beautiful things I never realized were there. I’d often come home with tears streaming down my face and my husband looking at me as if I’d lost my marbles. Everything seemed magical. While some of the feeling has faded, the memories remain evidence that we are all connected to everyone and everything whether we notice it or not.

Whether you are impacted by cancer, another illness or life challenge, I hope these axioms give you the same pause, solace and perspective they have for me.

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Living Universal Truths on My Cancerversary

 

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2014: Me & the “excited” med students

Yesterday, September 1st was my cancerversary.

In 2014 a parade of doctors came in and out of my hospital room using the word, excited, because of the 1 in 10 million diagnosis.  An intern asked if she could use my case as a homework project.  Looking back, it’s pretty fucked up to be doing to someone who was just diagnosed with cancer.

 

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2015: Post swim

September 1, 2015, was a blur along with the previous few months.  I was really sick, but it was my cancerversary and I forced myself to go to the gym for the first time in months to swim for 20 minutes. On the way to the gym and on the way home, I had to pull over to throw up. Also, fucked up.

And here we are  – September 1st of sweet 2016. This year has probably been the most rewarding ones ever and I’m fascinated how different life can be in 365 days, evidence that everything is impermanent.

 

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Perhaps, I am stronger than I think. Thomas Merton

Yesterday, I woke up and for a few minutes I didn’t remember.  I laid in bed, playing on my phone. I checked Facebook and saw my yoga teacher, Tommy, posted a picture of the quote I gave him on our last day of teacher training, with a caption, Perhaps, I am stronger than I think.  He had no idea of the day’s significance.  Everything is connected.

I decided to spend the day contemplating and living the seven universal truths, a concept that really resonated with me during training. A universal truth or axiom is something that is true no matter the time, space or situation.

As I got ready, I blasted, Starlight by Muse and danced around and sang to my dog, Bear. He already knows I’m crazy and he was not amused.  His disinterest only made me laugh, which, I know, deep down, makes him happy.  Laughter and play are the fountains of youth.

Unfortunately, yesterday was the day I had to get my monthly check-up at the hospital. Fortunately, I got one of my favorite nurses, who is Canadian and loves to talk with me in French.  We caught up and completely out of the blue, she asked me if I meditate, which prompted a conversation about the inner capacity for healing, a concept not generally accepted by the western medical community. A coincidence?  No, it’s all connected.  After our long discussion, she gave me my monthly injection of Lanreotide, the $16,000 medication that keeps me healthy.  Can we all just take a moment and be grateful for health insurance?

I finished at the hospital early, which never happens, so I walked down to Jeni’s Ice Cream.  This was the place I went after nearly every chemo treatment because I was obsessed with anything and everything cold. Coincidently (or totally not), my 2nd cousin was working behind the counter. Last August I met her for dinner after a chemo treatment with my freshly shaved head and haven’t seen her since. I repeat, everything is connected.

Exercise and rest are the keys to vibrant health. From Jeni’s, I walked over to the yoga studio for a 75-minute class and coincidently ran into another person who impacted my journey over the past two years. It was Liz, who I was introduced to by a mutual friend and met for coffee last June.  She was the one who told me I should go to the Center for Yoga to do my yoga teacher training. I have not seen her since then and loved how the universe plopped her in my path on today of all days giving me the chance to thank her and chat about possible opportunities for teaching.

As I walked back, I thought about how cool it was to run into these people today.  I was exactly where I was supposed to be today and for the last two years – a hard concept to accept. However, I know this axiom to be true due to the steady stream of opportunities that come my way because of cancer.  A few examples: I’m living my dream of being a writer. I’ve met several people who inspire me through having overcome their own challenges with cancer, mental illness and addiction. I performed at the Bluebird Cafe. I finished the Camino. I graduated yoga teacher training and will start teaching next month.  Heck, just this week, I was approached with an opportunity to share my experience to aid in bringing new drugs and treatments to neuroendocrine cancer patients in the United States. All of this would have never happened if cancer did not enter my life. So, am I exactly where I’m suppose to be? Yes, I think so.

I arrived home to find my favorite person. The one who held my hand through it all and whose positivity never, ever wavers.  We did what we do every evening – greet each other with hugs and kisses and snuggle on the couch as we talk about our days.  Touch and intimacy are basic human needs.

As September 1st drew to a close on the 2 year anniversary of the scariest day of my life, I laid in bed thinking about the most powerful universal truth for me. Fear and pain are life’s greatest teachers. It’s hard to say I’m grateful for cancer, but I am so grateful for the innumerable lessons cancer has taught me, many of which revealed themselves in moments of fear and pain. I’ll share the most important one – All we have is the moment we are in right now. The present. None of us are guaranteed the future.  And yesterday I didn’t spend my time worrying about the future. I just enjoyed and was grateful for the day and the angels who resurfaced to bring life full circle and reminded me that over the last two years I’ve learned, I am stronger than I thought.

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My 1st head stand. I used the wall to get up, but, as you’ll see in the mirror, the rest is all me.

 

The Seven Universal Truths:
1. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.
2. Fear and pain are life’s greatest teachers.
3. Laughter and play are the fountains of youth.
4. Exercise and rest are the keys to vibrant health.
5. Touch and intimacy are basic human needs.
6. Everything is impermanent.
7. Everything is connected.
Bonus truth: You are stronger than you think.

 

Releasing the Stress and Cancer Issues in Our Tissues

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As featured on curetoday.com

Whether we realize it or not, we hold emotional and physical tension in our bodies. We’ve all heard of someone pulling their back out or having neck pain while under stress. Maybe you’ve even experienced this first hand.

As for me, I thought I was doing good having made it through chemotherapy to help heal my physical body and seeing a therapist for the emotional and mental side. That is until I had an epiphany a few days into a 200 hour, 30-day intensive, yoga teacher training program this July.

After two major abdominal surgeries, I assumed my core was weak and I would struggle to get through six hours of yoga each day. In complete honesty, I had a weak core even before the surgeries. I’ll now confess I’ve always cheated when doing sit-ups, planks or any other abdominal exercise.

In the midst of a challenging hot Vinyasa yoga class, the teacher called out “boat pose” to the students. This is a posture where you to sit on your bottom and use your core to hold up your arms and legs. Normally, I would’ve just taken the opportunity to rest, but I decided to try and see what happened. I was excited and surprised because I was able to do it without much effort. A few days later, I did it again, this time holding for a bit longer. Determined not to let this pose beat me, I began shaking. My teacher came over and rested his hand on my leg and whispered, “It’s okay.” All of a sudden, without warning, I began crying uncontrollably. While this is not uncommon in yoga, it was surprising because it never happened to me before.

I had an epiphany and suddenly it all made sense. I realized I don’t avoid abdominal exercises because of the weakness in my core, but rather that is where I hold my tension and emotion, and as a result, I avoid this area to protect myself not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Even as a kid, I remember always watching TV or sleeping with a hand on my belly. After connecting these dots, it’s not a surprise that is where cancer manifested after years of avoiding this area and using it as a storage facility for stress and unresolved emotions. It was at that moment of uncontrollable sobbing when I released a lifetime of pent-up tension, stress and emotion, and boy, did it feel good. Overnight, boat pose went from my nemesis to the enemy I wanted to keep close. I’m on a mission to release this pent-up stress and will be doing boat pose everyday from this point forward.

As cancer survivors, we are constantly listening to what our bodies are telling us from a physical standpoint, but are we doing the same from an emotional, mental and spiritual aspect? Doctors aim to heal our physical bodies, and that’s what we hire them to do. We can aid in this process by doing the best we can to take care of ourselves by eating well, exercising and getting good sleep. However, we are responsible for healing our bodies mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Sure, there are professionals who can guide us through the process, but only we can do the tough poses.

After sharing this story with the group in yoga teacher training, my teacher said, “We store our issues in our tissues.” I encourage you to explore what your body is telling you about your emotions, mind and spirit. Where do you store your issues, tension, stress and emotion? And what are you doing to release it so it doesn’t turn into something worse? Here are a few of my favorite resources:

Yoga. The American Cancer Society and many other nonprofits offer free classes to cancer survivors. If you’d rather stay at home, check out the YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene, where you’ll find hundreds of free videos for every experience level and amount of time.

Meditation. There are many studies supporting meditation and the positive effects it has on our physical bodies. The documentary The Connection walks through the science of meditation and shares several stories of those who have reaped the benefits after being unwell. I also recommend the Headspace app, which provides free guided,10-minute meditations.

Daily Exercise. We all know we should, but it’s easy to find an excuse. No matter where you are in life, chances are you can find a few minutes (preferably, 30 or more) to break a sweat. As the saying goes, “Just do it!”

Laugh. It’s great medicine. Watch funny movies and surround yourself with those who know how to make you laugh. When I was sick, I watched hours of Jimmy Fallon, Lip Sync Battles and cat videos on YouTube.

Cry. Don’t hold it in. Get it out. If you’re not comfortable doing it in front of people, do it alone. It’s incredible how much better you can feel after a good cry.

Feel free to share other ways for releasing tension in the body.

Namaste.

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