The Choice: Responding to Cancer
The call came on my husband’s birthday. He picked up the other phone just as my surgeon said, “I’m really surprised. It is breast cancer and—are you sitting down?—the pathology report shows that the biopsy did not remove all of the cancer.”
We both hung up and my husband came into the room and asked if I was all right. I said, “Yes, and I’m going to go into the kitchen to make cookies for your birthday party so I can say it was the first thing I did when I found out I had cancer.”
I knew I had a choice in how I was to respond. I wanted to make that choice as consciously as possible. I live in Ananda, a spiritual community where yoga is a way of life. I’ve learned yoga by living it and breathing it every day for the past twenty years. My growth comes not from books, but from putting into practice the teachings of the great yoga masters, and watching how others in the community live.
I knew I had a choice in how I was to respond.
Anyone with deep faith in God or Spirit might feel the same way I felt. But with the tools of yoga, I knew I could control my energy-flow and work with my body, breath, and mind in ways that would strengthen my chances for healing.
In the months before I found the lump in my breast I was in a rut. I’d been there for quite a while. I didn’t know how to get out of it, and didn’t seem to have the energy to try. I remember praying, “Divine Mother, help me get out of this. I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of living with a closed heart, and I don’t know how to open it.” You’ve heard people say, “Be careful of what you ask for.” Obviously, this is what She had in mind.
A silent mantra began immediately—“I know this is mine; God doesn’t make mistakes. This is mine to have, to grow from. This is a gift from God.”
Why would I, a yogi, fear death? There had been few deaths in our community in its thirty-year history. But in the previous five months six women fighting long-term illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, and MS all passed away. I watched—all of us watched—as my sisters in God weathered surgeries and chemotherapy, and were finally released from their disease-wracked bodies. We are a small, close-knit community. We all feel profoundly connected and we are keenly affected by each other’s suffering and joy. Now our community was adrift in an ocean of grief.
Despite my initial resolve, fear of pain and sickness clouded the first few days after my diagnosis. I remembered everything I had ever read about foods, pesticides, fats, hormones, and preservatives that caused cancer. I became afraid to eat.
A friend came over when she heard me sobbing on the phone. She rubbed my feet as I told her I was so frightened of eating that I had hardly eaten in three days. She took me downstairs and made some soup. “I’ve seen many people go through this, Lisa, and I don’t think it makes any difference what you eat.” It was the right thing to say in that moment, for the fear vanished. We began talking about her son. I made a comment that seemed to help her with an inner struggle, and she thanked me. That was the turning point. I recalled a time when a friend and I had nearly drowned in rough seas in Hawaii. What gave me the strength to get back to shore was calling out encouragement to her.
Our community needed someone to live.
I realized that this was the boat that might carry not only me but our entire community toward the shores of healing. I was the first person in our community to be diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease since the last woman had passed away. Our community needed someone to live. I couldn’t have found courage for myself, but I would do everything I could to channel positive, life-affirming consciousness through my experience for the sake of everyone else.
It was then that another mantra began to play in my mind: “This is God’s life, not my life.” I really started to get it. I might think this is my life, but if God wanted to play out the lila of cancer, or of overcoming illness, through this life, it didn’t matter whether I approved of it or not.
At the time of my diagnosis my job was organizing pilgrimage tours to India, doing secretarial work for Swami Kriyananda, and running a small community gift shop. Like everyone else, I was very busy and I had to choose between asana practice and meditation. Meditation won 95 percent of the time. Now I made a conscious effort to return to an asana practice that I knew would help me raise and harmonize my energy. My favorite asana became janu shirshasana (head-to-knee pose), not only because it is a surrender pose eliciting deep relaxation, but also because I loved the affirmation that we use with it: “Left and right and all around, life’s harmonies are mine!” I practiced Yogananda’s “Energization Exercises” so that I could consciously use my will to draw in prana, the healing divine life-force. This was another way to express my life-affirming intention. I also worked with deep breathing. Cancer cannot live in an aerobic environment. The first time I lay down and consciously breathed diaphragmatically, visualizing the flow of oxygen filling my body, I felt empowered and relieved.
Meditation became my refuge. The only time I felt safe was when I could deeply meditate, disconnecting from my body-consciousness. Because the meditation practice I use is based on pranayama (energy control), it helped me to take hold of my energy and move it in a positive direction. When meditation seemed impossible, I would chant. I love to chant. It’s often the most important part of my sadhana. It not only coaxed my restless mind toward peace, it opened my heart. I soon found that my joy was coming back.
Now, I needed to decide what to do. The options I considered were a lumpectomy with follow-up radiation of the breast tissue, or a modified radical mastectomy with removal of a portion of the lymph nodes and all of the breast tissue. I read about both procedures. Friends all had differing opinions. My physicians would not voice a preference. My spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, had taught me to listen to everyone, no matter how crazy they might seem, “…because you never know whom God will speak through, to you.”
“How do I know where my guidance will come from?” I nearly shouted one morning, feeling frustrated at hearing that either procedure had the same “survival rate.” Within a minute of this cry for help, our new puppy emerged from my closet, prancing playfully, carrying a piece of laundry in her mouth. It was a bra, and she’d chewed it perfectly in half. “It’s a sign,” I proclaimed. “I’m supposed to have the mastectomy!”
Fear struck again and stirred up my emotions. I lost yoga.
I became focused on getting the malignancy out of my body—too focused, because I began to lose the energy for my sadhana. I thought of the cells growing out of control in my body and I wanted them out! I had a surgery date, but it was three weeks away. I didn’t know if I could stand to think about having cancer in my body for that long. So I called each morning to see if there might be a cancellation so that I could have my surgery sooner. At one point I even said, “Surely you have an elective patient that I could trade with.” Fear struck again and stirred up my emotions. I lost yoga.
Yoga chitta vritti nirodha: “Yoga is the neutralization of the whirlpools of feeling.” As long as I tried to change the outer circumstances instead of trusting the inner guiding hand that was so evident from the beginning, my peace was lost. My last call to the doctor produced the same answer: “Sorry, there haven’t been any cancellations; your surgery is still scheduled for July 31.” I finally let go. The acceptance was real, and a wave of peace washed over me. The sense that these insidious cells were trying to take over my body diffused into “They’re just too stupid to know when to quit growing.” I used the two remaining weeks before surgery to tie up loose ends, “clear the decks,” and make plans that would allow me to rest and heal afterward, rather than obsess about unfinished business.
As is traditional at Ananda, the night before my surgery I was given a blessing. It seemed like the entire community showed up. We chanted together for an hour and people came up one by one and laid their hands on my head, over my heart, and at the spiritual eye. As we shared our oneness as gurubhais [fellow seekers] I was filled with their love, and God’s love through them.
I told them about my husband walking out of our meditation room days before holding a statue I bought in India—half Shiva, half Parvati, the perfect balance of male and female. With a mischievous smile he said, “After Friday you’re going to look like this.” The figure has, of course, only one breast. Everyone laughed—it was wonderful.
I checked into the hospital two hours before my scheduled surgery, accompanied by my parents, my husband, and ten of my women friends. As I was being wheeled into surgery I silently thanked my left breast for taking whatever karma this was and bringing it into the physical level so that it could be so easily removed. The anesthesiologist agreed to give me some positive suggestions as I was put under. I then put on my Walkman headphones to listen to the gayatri and maha mrityunjaya mantras during the surgery. Down the hall in the hospital chapel, my friends were meditating, sending me healing energy and chanting AUM throughout the entire surgery.
Perhaps the cauterization after the biopsy took care of the remaining cancer, but I believe it was the love and blessings coming through my friends and family that burned up all remaining disease.
The next day I felt great and ready to go home. When the surgeon finally showed up in the afternoon to sign my release, he told me about the pathology report. It showed no traces of cancer in breast tissue or in any of the lymph nodes that were removed. Perhaps the cauterization after the biopsy took care of the remaining cancer, but I believe it was the love and blessings coming through my friends and family that burned up all remaining disease.
The aftermath of a mastectomy and lymphectomy is an immovable arm. I was offered a variety of opinions on how and when to begin therapy on my arm. I listened to my body and when I was brave enough to start, I followed Patanjali’s instruction: asana is steady and comfortable. I would simply lie on my back, arm on the floor, and slowly and gradually slide it along the floor until I was at my maximum stretch with comfort. Then I just let the arm be there. In two weeks I had regained full range of motion, though my chest wall still felt like the bottom of an iron frying pan, hard and tight. Within four months of stretching and doing asanas I could feel the scar tissue in the chest loosen significantly. Then slowly the feeling began to come back into my arm.
Five months after the surgery I was asked to work at our yoga retreat, The Expanding Light, and begin teaching hatha yoga again. The timing was perfect. My previous job had been isolating and I wanted to work with people and share the blessing of yoga. The cancer helped me to open my heart in ways I never would have expected. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.