One Year Cancerversary

(photo: Larisa Forman)

Healing Breast Cancer (photo: Larisa Forman)

Dates are important to people with long-term illness: we celebrate them with a vengeance. We celebrate everything actually – because every moment we’re still here is a fucking party. Harrowing and victorious moments alike are crystalized into milestones, because each one reminds us that we’re not dead yet. Pain and pleasure are like sugar and salt – two sides of the same living and breathing, sensuous world.

We remember the first time we told someone we had cancer with the same clarity we remember the first time we told someone we’d been accepted into college. We remember the first time we made love as a cancer patient the same way we remember loosing our virginity. We remember the first chemotherapy infusion and the first time we threw up. We remember the first time our white blood cell count dropped dangerously low and we were declared neutropenic. But in addition to all the bumps in the road, we remember and celebrate all the hurdles we’ve cleared, and every single finish line we’ve crossed: first round of chemo completed: check. Second round of chemo completed: check. Tumor removed: check. Adjunctive chemotherapy completed: check. First anniversary of diagnosis: check. And then the big ones: The one year anniversary of the cancer’s removal, and the even bigger one: the second year anniversary of the cancer’s removal, and then the biggest one: the 5 year anniversary of the cancer’s removal.

Maybe it seems like a lot of hoopla. Is that really a word? Maybe it seems ceremonial overkill. But if you’re part of this tribe, if you’ve ever taken a trip to Cancerland, you know how important these annual markers are.

Today is the one year anniversary of my mastectomy; my cancer’s removal. That means that for one year I have been N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease). If I can make it to July 25th, 2015 without a reoccurrence, I will be 80% likely to beat this damn disease entirely. 80%. That’s a pretty big deal. So I know we just made a big deal about how I finally, after 16 months and 31 infusions, I finished chemotherapy – but to me, this is an even bigger deal. I don’t need a party, or a big display of public support… I just need to share this moment with you – and with my fellow breast cancer sisters, and celebrate in my own little way.

This morning I went for a ride with our Nantucket cycling group. It was my 4th ride this week. And even though I know they slowed down significantly for me, I hung on through the whole ride, and averaged a personal best speed. That to me is the party. The ongoing celebration of life. The fight. The victory. The triumph.

This time last year I was on an operating table at Mass General Hospital. Dr. Michelle Specht was removing my tumor, the invasive cancer that covered 3/4th of my breast, and taking the other one off proactively. My plastic surgeon was about to surgically place two silicon implants into my chest. I hand needles in my arms and tubes draining out my sides.  I wasn’t sure when I woke up if I would still have my own nipples. We didn’t know how many of my lymph nodes would be cancerous. We didn’t really know how well I had respond to chemotherapy. We didn’t know that a year later, I would be riding with a pack of highly driven cyclists. We didn’t know that I would win.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver.

grief

Caitlin with cancer

I took a yoga class this morning and cried. I cried every time we came into a forward fold. I cried every time we opened our hips.I cried during cat & cow, child’s pose and even downward facing dog.

I cried for the last 8 months of treatments my family has endured. I cried for every needle stick, every blood test, every biopsy, injection and surgical procedure. I cried for every night spent writhing in pain on the couch, and every morning kneeling over the toilet. I cried for every time I was too tired to play with my son, or walk to the beach.

I cried  for the natural breasts I now miss; the ones I was born with, the ones I used to nurse my son.

I cried for the physical strength I once had, the endurance I’ve lost, and the muscle tissue that has atrophied.

I cried because plank is hard, chaturanga is impossible and cobra is painful. I cried because laying on my stomach pushes my implants into my chest and makes it hard for me to breathe. I cried because I’m not sure I like anything about these new appendages.

I cried because I’ve lost sensation in the skin across my chest. I cried because I cannot feel my nipples, and when my lover touches them I do not know.

I cried for all the days I have not recognized myself. I cried for the impermanence, the letting go and saying good-bye.

I cried for the medically-induced early menopause. I cried because I will never have another baby. I cried because last night I had my first true hot flash.

I cried because amputating a part of my body has been a big deal, though I have played it down.

I cried because for 8 months I’ve rarely let myself.

I cried because it was long overdue.

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I am starting over with a new body. This body is softer and wiser. It has some big scars and a few little ones, and each one tells a powerful story. This body moves differently, expresses itself differently and even sits in silence differently. But as vulnerable as it may be, this body loves bigger, connects stronger, and is home to a depth of gratitude and appreciation I would never have found on my own in the time before cancer.

“When we become sick, we often take the illness personally and feel that our happiness is conditional upon getting ride of it. We forget that illness- along with aging and death- is a hallmark of our human existence, and we get angry at our bodies for “letting us down”. When we realize that illness is inescapable, realize that stress around illness increases our suffering, and that being sick is not a shortcoming – only than can we be at ease with, and even empowered by, illness.” ~ Jean Smith

May all we learn to hold ourselves sweetly, no matter where we are. May our commitment to practice compassion begin with compassion for our Selves. May we continue to show up, rise up and hold space for our own intrinsic value in sickness and in health.

Life After the Knife: Keep Your Head Up

{ graphic / nudity}
Originally Published by RebelleSociety.com on August 12th, 2013
 

What happened after the knife?

 
Life After the Knife by Caitlin Marcoux, Cancer Jedi

photo by Robert Kricivich

Eight months doesn’t seem like a lot to exchange for the chance at living another 50 years, so I’m trying to be patient.

For me, the past 2 weeks since my mastectomy have been packed with a myriad of  emotional transitions and physical alterations and it’s been tough to stay attentive. Despite my lack of physical activity, all the emotional flux I’ve been navigating has turned slow days into full days, and I find myself feeling like the last 2 weeks have both flow by and crawled along at a snail’s pace.

It’s hard to believe that 2 weeks ago I had a body of disease and today I am making big strides towards a full recovery.

According to everyone, my double mastectomy and immediate reconstruction was a great success. With the guidance of my savvy oncologist, the previous 3 months worth of chemotherapy shrank my tumor and all of it’s many calcifications and satellite spots of carcinoma to an almost undetectable presence. My breast surgeon was then able to remove all the invasive cancer from my chest, get clean margins and perform what is called a nipple and skin-sparring mastectomy.

What is a skin-sparring mastectomy?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this process, as I was before confronting it, this kind of mastectomy involves the removal of all of the patient’s breast tissue, but preserves a woman’s own nipples and surrounding skin. While nipple-sparring is said to alleviate  some of the emotional turmoil a woman will feel following a mastectomy, sadly she will never regain sensation in her nipples. Generally speaking the pain level following this type of mastectomy is greater than that of a simple or total mastectomy, but if it were possible, I was prepared to pay that price should I be able to keep more of myself self intact.

It was originally said that I was not a candidate for this surgery given the extensive and aggressive nature of my cancer, so going into my operation, I wasn’t sure what outcome to expect. My team had prepared me for a couple of possibilities: single stage reconstruction with implants, or tissue expanders which would help rebuild my breast over several months should everything need to be removed. I really had no idea if I was going to wake up with tissue expanders, flat chested or fully reconstructed with all my own bits and pieces.

Needless to say, I was scared.

I arrived at Mass General Hospital at 5:30 am with my teammates by my side. Both my partner Burr and friend Elisa helped shepherd me through not one, but two preoperative check points, and as we got closer to the surgical time of 7:00 my anxiety was mitigated only by a dose of Ativan.

The fear kicked in big time when Burr and I were greeted by my anesthesiologists who explained to me in detail the process of getting a PVB, or paravertebral block. The explanation, though sound, did nothing to make me feel better.

“PVB is an advanced nerve block technique, in which long-acting local anesthetic is injected below the muscles lateral to the spine and adjacent to the spinal nerves. Ultrasound guidance ensures correct needle placement, and the injected local anesthetic provides a band of numbness around the chest and breast area.” 

Ultrasound guidance or not, I was terrified by the thought of someone sticking a needle in my back. After all, I am the girl who’s primary motivation to birth at home was to avoiding an epidural. Put another way, I’d take childbirth over a needle in my back any day.

The explanation seemed to continue on for hours. The radiologists’ voices seemed distant and distorted, as if the words came out of their mouths in slow motion. Then, all of a sudden, they  disappeared. They went to check on the O.R. and the time space continuum swallowed me up. All I could hear was the thumping of my heart and the loud rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Be here now, said a voice from somewhere deep inside my mind.

It occurred to me right then and there, that staying present has been exactly what I’ve been hoping to convey in my yoga classes all year. Crazy pre-surgical fear and all, this was just another golden opportunity to put my money where my mouth was, and be.

Be here now, the voice said again.

I fell back on my mindfulness techniques. I focused on the feel of the loose hospital garment draped over my shoulders, the sounds around me, and the cold bed beneath my seat. I remembered Thich Nhat Hahn’s gatha:

Breathing in I calm.

Breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

It is a precious moment.

Pre-Op Mastectomy and Reconstruction. Caitlin Marcoux

When the doctors returned, it was time to lay down on my stomach and surrender the fear.

Burr was asked to clear the room and an ultrasound machine was switched on. Someone injected an intoxicating liquid mellow high into my I.V. and soothing female voices began coaxing me to relax. Reflexively I started ujjayi breathing, and somehow I faded into the ether. I barely remember the nerve blocks going in.

The next thing I remember was thirst. Thirst, then dizziness, then nausea and then Burr. By the grace of the divine, the marvels of modern medicine and several hundred friends and yogis praying and practicing for me, my surgery was a success.

My cancer was vanquished, my breast surgeon saved my nipples, the plastic surgeon reconstructed my breasts and everything was completed within the space of 5 hours. As I came to my senses, I felt a tightness around my chest and a tingling in my breasts.

Breasts! Yes, I had them.

Two of them; swollen and distorted from surgery, but exactly where the old ones had been. How amazing. 

I was released from the hospital just two nights after my surgery. Sent home with a monstrous surgical bra and an elastic band that wrapped around my chest to keep the implants from pulling north, I felt like a walking Ace bandage. With the residual effects of anesthesia and morphine still pumping through my body I was amped enough to entertain company for dinner.

I’d love to say that things went smoothly from there on out, but I can’t. I’d love to tell you that I kept the full sense of mindfulness and presence I had found in pre-op, and that I basked continually in gratitude for my medical successes, but that would be a lie.

A knife might be less painful than depression.

The truth is, that once the last of the intravenous drugs wore off, nausea and vomiting descended upon me like locusts, eating up any excitement or enthusiasm I had had for surviving the surgery. Since I couldn’t hold food down, I weened myself off everything except Tylenol and Ativan, three days after my hospital discharge.

But once off the narcotic pain killers I was haunted by strange phantom pain in my chest and bizarre let-down reflexes in my breasts.

Every time I thought about my holding or snuggling with my son Griffin, I’d feel the hot prickling sensation of my long ago dried up milk coming in, and a floodgate of tears would stream down my cheeks. No longer having milk ducts to produce and deliver milk, nor a baby to nourish, I felt bewildered by these sensations and overwhelmed by maternal yearning.

Try Googling “phantom let-down reflex after mastectomy,” and you might get two or three hits on some breast cancer message board, and that’s about it. So little information exists out there that I thought I was just imagining things.

I made valiant attempts to stay positive, but found myself spiraling into sadness.

The dirty, dark secret thing that no one wants to talk about, the possibility the doctors don’t warn you about, the trap that Glass-Half-Full-Cancer-Warrior-Troopers aren’t supposed to succumb to, is that cancer can cause clinical depression.

And about 7 days out of surgery, I fell into a deep, self-loathing darkness. The darkness in my heart matched perfectly the deep purple bruising spreading across my chest.

Life After the Knife. Post-Mastectomy bruising. Caitlin Marcoux

One week post-surgery bruising.

I’ve always believed that knowledge is power, so I’ve since done a little digging.

It turns out that studies show as many as 1/3 of people newly diagnosed with cancer, in treatment for cancer and those who’ve survived cancer suffer from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and according to HealthNews Day, 1 in 4 women with breast cancer report symptoms of PTSD following diagnosis and/or treatment.

Symptoms of PTSD include “trouble sleeping, memory problems, irritability or anger, feelings of guilt or shame and episodes of uncontrolled sadness and crying spells” (Post-traumatic Stress via The Mayo Clinic).

Well, this explained the unbearable darkness and tumultuous tears.

I rested all of my hope on getting my surgical drains taken out as soon as possible. These drains are a package deal when you have a mastectomy and keep blood and lymphatic fluid from collecting at the surgical site. The drains are embedded inside the breast area and extend externally from your body, where they connect to collection bulbs, sometimes called grenades. The bulbs are awkward at best, and need to be fastened with safety pins to your clothes.

While the drains functionally provide an important service, they are anything but sexy (if you’re interested in more about the drains, there are hundreds of amateur videos you can watch on YouTube), suffice to say that daily life with the tubes and drains comes with its own set of challenges.

I was crestfallen when at my July 31st follow-up appointment with my plastic surgeon, he told me I’d need to keep the drains in for at least two more weeks due to residual edema and the stubborn internal bleeding. For a short while I let this pull me down deeper into my depression.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, no feeling is final.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The drains are a drag.

But they are temporary, at least that’s what I  keep telling myself, and isn’t that the lesson that has made itself clear since the beginning of this journey: that everything is temporary (beauty, youth, fertility, hair, health, even breasts). The only constant in life is change.

In her powerful and tender book, Being Well (Even When You are Sick), Elana Rosenbaum counsels those of us with illness that “To accept change, we need to accept thoughts and feelings as well as our resistance to an altered life.” I read that and thought, what sage advice.

So all that being said, I decided this week, it was time to accept my bulbous plastic friends and my depression and then maybe I would stop feeling so out of control. Obviously climbing out of a depression is easier said than done, but with support from my partner, my family and my therapist, I stopped fighting everything so hard, and started to embrace things as they are.

Acceptance is key.

I picked up my old copy of Pema Chodron‘s seminal work When Things Fall Apart, started walking the eighth of a mile to the beach a couple of times every day, and recommitted to my meditation practice. My partner came up with smart, creative ways to make the drain grenades more comfortable.

We used old Kaenon sunglass bags to cover the  sticky plastic bulbs (making them much less irritating to my skin) and carabiners to fasten them to my belt loops. This makes wearing the grenades more comfortable and it saves my clothes from holes made by the safety pins.

Then, when I wanted to shower, we made good use of one of my many malas. It’s easy to pin the drains between the beads, and this frees up your hands for sudsing and shaving. Loop a long mala around your head twice, and you have complete freedom.

Sometimes I keep the grenades pined like this all day long. If I leave the house, they go back in the sunglass bags and get pinned inside one of Burr’s boxy t-shirts. If I’m teaching class (yoga) I wear a flowy skirt with a roll down waist band that can cover the grenades and a loose tank top on top to hide the drains. I sit on a yoga block at the front of the class and keep pillows under my arms to remind me from excitedly gesturing with my arms while I queue.

Life After the Knife. Post-Mastectomy drainage. Caitlin Marcoux

My sacred drainage mala.

I even started going to the gym…with my parents!

As if it weren’t already sweet enough that each day this week, my father or my mother has picked me up and chauffeured me to the Nantucket Health Club, the entire staff welcomes me with open arms and showers me with encouragement. “We’re with you” they say. “You can do this!” they declare.

The reality is, I can’t do much (in the way of exercise); nothing with my arms until my drains are taken out, but I can ride the stationary recumbent bike. So that’s what I’ve been doing; about 10 miles a day, at a very mild pace.* The endorphins I release while exercising are giving me the kick in the ass I’ve needed to stop the depression in it’s tracks, and despite the drains, I feel better than I have in weeks.

*Sidenote: it is important not to get your heart rate up too high while recovering from surgery — exercise only under your doctor’s guidance.

My dad is a cancer survivor too. Stage IV throat cancer almost took him from us two years ago. It’s kind of a miracle he’s alive, considering he smoked well into his 50′s.

Never having been one for a workout, it’s impressive that this year he’s getting himself to a few group fitness classes per week. I’m tickled pink when we go there together: two cancer survivors, working out in the same gym, giving cancer a run for its money.

My life feels very different since I was diagnosed with cancer.

It certainly looks different. Some times things change at lightening speed; like the initial diagnosis which hits you out of nowhere at 180 miles per hour. Other times a treatment or procedure seems to go on forever: hours can be lost in trace watching chemotherapy drugs drip slowly from their IV bags.

The key for me I think, and perhaps for all of us no matter what the struggle, is to stay present with whatever’s happening, whenever possible, as much as possible.

I have a few more hurdles to jump before I can put breast cancer behind me, but with presence and acceptance things are getting easier every day.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” ~ Carl Rogers

Making the Breast Decision: Mastectomy & Reconstruction?

Originally Published by RebelleSociety.com
July 23rd, 2013

 

{via Tumblr}

 

It’s been 4 months since a core biopsy revealed I have invasive breast cancer. Since then, my days have been chock-full of research and reflection, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about the upcoming July 24th surgery that will theoretically save my life.

In the past 4 months I’ve had 14 infusions of chemotherapy and 16 weeks toweigh the options: single mastectomy, double mastectomy, reconstruction, no reconstruction, nipple tattoo, artistic tattoo, no tattoo. I’ve grappled with whether the path of least resistance would be to peel myself back to the bone, bravely staying flat chested forever, or to move gracefully forward with the replication of what I am about to loose.

Each option has its pros and cons. Of course they are all preferable to have no options at all.

With all the decisions that needed to be made, I’ve researched all my available choices (there are many) and prepared myself for the various possible outcomes of resection (there are a few). I’ve asked everyone I knew who’s gone before me all the relevant (and delicate) questions: Are you happy with your choices? Would you do things differently? Do you like the way you look?

Some of my fellow breast cancer warriors elected to remove only the breast affected by cancer, and haven’t sought to reconstruct. Some of these women use an external prosthetic in their bras and bathing suits, some don’t.

Many women I’ve spoken to have removed both the diseased breast and the healthy one prophylactically, and have reconstructed both. Some of these women were candidates for nipple-sparing mastectomies, which left their original areola and nipples intact; some were not and could not.

For those for whom saving the nipple and surrounding skin isn’t an option artistic tattooing can be healing. These women are empowered by reclaiming this part of their body with stunning tattoos where nipples or whole breasts used to be. Each woman’s options are affected by her case, diagnosis and genetic background.

The possibilities are many. The choices can feel overwhelming…

{Via BreastFree.org}

I’ve taken a winding, sometimes bumpy road to arrive at my own decision.

In the beginning I researched various autologous reconstruction procedures, all of which create new breasts using some fat, muscle, skin and blood vessels harvested from another area of one’s own body. But I came to the conclusion that this option could leave me physically weakened in the donor area of my body, and might seriously interfere with my yoga practice.

Then I asked myself if I’d be okay using cadaver or bovine (yes, cow) tissue to hold a silicon or saline implant in place. As an aspiring vegan, this presented me with a bit of an ethical dilemma, and I wasn’t sure if I could introduce any kind of foreign body into my own; whether it came from a four-legged friend or a chemical manufacturer.

Down to the bone.

In May, I came to the momentary conclusion that I would choose mastectomy without reconstruction. I started compulsively feeling my ribcage, imagining a smooth hillside slope from my collarbones down to my bellybutton. I’d press my fingers into the divots between my ribs and try to picture myself with a full set of 12 impressions instead of the breast tissue that presently occludes the spaces between my fifth, sixth and seventh intercostal muscles.

For hours and hours I Googled images of women without reconstruction to see how I would feel when trying on a more Balanchine ballet dancer version of femininity: flat chested and boy-like. What I found were hundreds, maybe thousands of brave women who have documented their journey through breast cancer and proudly displayed photographed themselves or posed for others.

Coffee table books and websites, like The Scar Project, celebrate these women and beautifully illustrate the process of survival and recovery. The photographs I unearthed revealed incredible courage and strength, and touched places deep inside my feminine soul.

 

{David Jay Photography via TheScarProject.org}

 

{David Jay Photography via TheScarProject.org}

 

But after sitting with this decision for several weeks, I realized that something was off. My decision no longer felt personal. It felt political, forced and academic. I realized that the pressure of what I thought I was supposed to choose was strangling what I wanted to choose. 

Through meditation and self-inquiry, I realized how reactionary my initial decision had been. I had judged myself harshly in April for wanting “fake breasts,” and I had labeled myself vain. I needed to get out of my head and listen to my heart.

When I finally did, I realized that choosing not to reconstruct out of fear of being judged for having implants is no more authentic than choosing reconstruction for fear of being flat chested. Either path is honorable and navigating breast cancer is brave, period. Other people’s opinions are none of our business.

CM

 

Beauty takes many forms.

I have unending admiration for the women who have lost their breasts to cancer and have chosen not to reconstruct. I think they are just as beautiful as women who’ve never gone through cancer, or prophylactically opted for surgery. But after much debate with myself, I have chosen another path.

Tomorrow, June 24th, I am having a bilateral mastectomy. I have chosen to remove both my breast that has cancer and the one that does not. If single stage reconstruction is possible, it will happen shortly after my breast tissue and cancer is removed.

If my cancer is still too extensive to save the majority of my skin and nipple, my plastic surgeon will put in tissue expanders that will stretch my skin until it is able to hold a pair of implants. Either way, I am excited to have a new pair.

This decision has brought with it great freedom. I feel released now; released from the pressure I was putting on myself to practice the asceticism I had applauded as part of renouncing reconstruction.

With my mind settled on rebuilding what cancer has taken from me, I’ve been able to return my focus to my heart. Spending time in quiet meditation and holding myself with greater tenderness, I’ve been mourning the imminent loss of the breasts I used to feed my son, and pleasure my partner.

In honoring our time together I’ve been directing thoughts of loving kindness towards my breasts and letting go of any negative feelings I’ve had about them in the past. I’ve come to realize that for me saying good-bye to my breasts has also been about letting go of any shame, blame or animosity I’ve felt about them in the past.

I’ve forgiven their colossal and quite early development in my pre-teens, the shrinking they did when I lost weight in my 20s, the tear-jerking mastitis I had during the first few months of breast feeding, and their abrupt deflation after I weaned my son. I’ve reached back into my relationship memories and forgiven the right one for being smaller than the left (a physically perceptible fact that mortified and embarrassed me in my 20s) and I’ve reframed any disappointments I’ve had in my sense of self as they’ve related to my beautiful mammary glands. On the brink of momentous change, I think I’ve finally made peace and let go of all the old gripes and insecurities.

I’ve put my hands over my chest and thanked my breasts for all the amazing things they’ve brought into my world: a strapping, well-nourished toddler, a satisfied and engaged partner, and a deeply loving maternal sensibility within myself.

I’m ready now; ready to make space in my heart to welcome myself home again: perhaps a little modified, but healthy, cancer-free and just as much a woman as before.

{Photo: Larisa Forman / Caitlin Marcoux}

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” ~ Anne Frank

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Read more about my journey with cancer:

>> 10 Practical Tips for the first 10 Days of Cancer. 

>> How to Talk to Someone with Cancer.

>> Cancer and Equanimity: Can you see the forest through the trees?

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Looking for more 411 on Breast Cancer?

Check out these resources and personal stories:

Breastcancer.org

BreastFree.org

StupidCancer.org

Susan G. Komen

American Cancer Society

Breast Cancer Resource Center

Living Beyond the Breast

National Cancer Institute

Caring4Cancer

Crazy Sexy Cancer

Breast Cancer Blogs:

Generation Why

Chemo Babe

Boo Cancer Your Suck

Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer

The Mindfulness of Cancer

Photo: Larisa Forman

{Photo: Larisa Forman}

This is it: the last 6 days of me, Caitlin, as I (and you) know her.

The last six days of me with the two breasts God gave me, the ones I proudly used to nourished my son Griffin, the ones I  struggled to like as a teenager, and the ones I came to love as an adult. By next Wednesday, the 24th of July, they will be no more.

Truly, everything is temporary, especially our bodies. This entire adventure with cancer has been one big lesson in giving up attachments and identity and learning to practice mindfulness: learning to be as present in the challenging moments of my life as I am in the blissful.

In a class I taught at the Yoga Room, just this morning, I read the following passage:

Mindfulness is not about an absence of emotion or a way to steam the natural flow of illness, aging, loss and separation. This flow may be inevitable, but our response to it is not. As a person who lives with cancer and the uncertainty of another reoccurrence, I need to be mindful. This “bad” thing (cancer) is also “good”, because it forces me to remember that my time is limited. Knowing this is a gift that forces me to notice what brings joy and harmony and wheat does not. this is mindfulness: learning from what we do and acknowledging the patterns of thought and action that have been established so we can decide whether thy continue to sere us well. ~Elana Rosenbaum, Being Well Even When You’re Sick

As I’ve watched my hair fall out, my eyebrows thin and loosen, my skin redden and tighten and my moon cycles dry up, I have been forced  to learn impermanence on a deeper level I may not have otherwise appreciated in my 30’s.  Finding the silver linings has not always been easy. In fact, cancer has challenged me in ways no other life experience has, but for that I am now grateful.

As I prepare to say good-bye to my beloved breasts, I know I am meant to learn even more about myself through this process. Despite the anxiety I am feeling about the medical procedure (the vulnerability evoked by needles, tubes, paper gowns, and face masks), I am starting to feel the empowerment of knowing my cancer will soon be gone.

By this time next week, I will be finished with a day of pre-opertative labs and doctor’s appointments and getting ready for my surgery the following morning. When I think about this there is a small amount of anxiety that remains in my belly, but practicing Mindfulness meditations, both on my own and while teaching others, has helped me move out of the darkness of the past few weeks into a more profound appreciation of the moment.

Watching my breath, taking in my surrounding, listening, tasting, smelling, breathing, feeling – this is the practice.

The ultimate goal of this practice is heightened awareness to feel more alive and be free of suffering. It is a practice that cultivates compassion and wisdom. Mindfulness is an adventure. The present moment is a precious moment. 

We have come to the end of our first intermission… and it is nearly time for Act Two to begin.

These are the last 6 days of swimming in the ocean and being able to fully submerge myself in a tub or a pool. These are the last few days of being able to use my arms around the house: to make meals, fold laundry, shave my own legs, put away dishes or make beds. These are the last few days I will wrestle with my son or hold my partner. How delicious it is to have these six days! I feel oddly hyper aware of my arms and connected to all the amazing thing they can do.

I feel a great tenderness to my breasts and gratitude for all the joy they have brought me and others.

For sure there have been some dark moments for me over the past few months: a couple of significant panic attacks, some depression, some grief, some resentment and some anger. But I’m learning to sit with the discomfort. I’ve allowed it to rage and to subside, to wax and to wane, to take me down and let me go, and in doing so, have practiced being as much with the “bad” as with the “good”.

With patience and acceptance, the mind does begin to quiet, but not if we try to push it away or repress it. If we try to control it, it will, like a rebellious child refuse to calm. 

I’m ready.

Now I feel strong again and ready for what’s next to come. There is nothing to be afraid of.

Strength

{Photo: Larisa Forman}

The surgery that will “save my life”, as my breast surgeon described it, will commence some time shortly after 5:30am. Though anything is possible, I have been told to assume the operation will take about 8 hours. When I wake I will be with my partner, my girlfriend Elisa and  my parents (who will be returning from a 2 week stay in Maine). I hope to wake up with two new and fully reconstructed breasts and the best part of all, without ANY CANCER.

Yes, that’s right, no cancer, or in medical terms NED aka No Evidence of Disease.

You might remember from my earlier posts, that Act Three of our drama includes 4 more rounds of the chemotherapy drug fondly nicknamed “The Red Devil”, but if all goes well in Act Two, my cancer should be all but eradicated. These 4 infusions of Adriamycin/Cytoxin are considered an insurance policy that all the “invasive” cancer cells that may have been missed surgically will be wiped out. This process will start just two weeks after my surgery – some time around August 21st…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

So please, if you are inclined  I would be honored if you would think of me on July 24th – any time between 5:30am and 12:30pm. If those of you who practice yoga could include me in your dedications, I would be forever grateful. And certainly, if my dear friends  in the Boston area feel like popping by to say hello when I’m in recovery – I would love to see you. I’ll be at Mass General Hospital.

Right now I am enjoying my life. All of it. For the next 6 days I want to live to the fullest: I want to teach, swim, meditate, practice, snuggle with my little boy, and love up my man all as much as possible.

As Henry David Thoreau said “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” 

If you are in Nantucket this Sunday, I hope you will join us for my Boob Voyage Party. The details are in the attached poster. If I don’t see you there, I’ll see you on the mat, at The Green, or in my dreams.

Namaste,

Caitlin

Boob Voyage Soiree

Boob Voyage Soiree: Sunday July 21st, 2013