It was early morning. My family was still asleep. The sun was just rising over the Ojai Valley, while I stood in Tadasana, or mountain pose, my hands pressed together in prayer. While I was singing the opening chant of my Ashtanga yoga practice, I felt a strange buzzing in my left breast.
Much later, after I was diagnosed with Stage 2A HER2 positive breast cancer, I wondered if the buzzing had been there for months. I'll never know for sure, but I like to think that yoga saved my life.
Yoga literally means "to yoke" or to unite the mind and body, and for me, that meant a sudden awareness of something chaotic living underneath my skin. What if on that particular day I woke up just enough to notice the feeling of cancer? And what if I hadn't felt it? Is it possible it would have metastasized before I found it? Would I still be alive today?
“I like to think that yoga saved my life.”
The next month when I finally got an appointment to see my OBGYN, I think she might have thought I was crazy. "You look very healthy to me," she said, feeling my breasts for lumps. My breasts are small and dense, and you couldn't feel any lumps. There was just this strange buzzing feeling now and then that was hard to describe to my doctor.
"I'm telling you I think I have cancer," I said. She ordered my mammogram. It was my first one. And I was right. I wasn't crazy or being alarmist. It was breast cancer. I still remember the look on the technician's face when he saw my breast tissue under the ultrasound. He too knew something was wrong. Within two days, I was in surgery. Within weeks, I was meeting with oncologists.
Which Treatment Path to Take?
Perhaps the hardest part of getting cancer for me was all the decisions. Which oncologist should I listen to? Which treatment plan should I take? I met with three different oncologists and each one had a different treatment plan. Then there were my friends and family. Each person had an opinion, and some of them had to make sure I heard what they thought about chemo, radiation, and the alternatives.
"Please don't be one of those people who refuses to get chemo and dies, Amy," my friend, Patty, said. Another told me to follow my gut, but my gut was in knots. Should I do four rounds of chemo? Six? None? It was the scientific evidence behind metastasis that made me choose my particular treatment plan. I didn't want my breast cancer to spread to my bones or my brain. Both cancers are incurable.
For my plan, I chose to combine Western and Eastern medicine. The Western approach was to kill all of the cancer cells with chemo and radiation. The Eastern method combatted the negative side effects of chemo and radiation on my body. I chose four rounds of chemo, six rounds of radiation, and no Tamoxifen. This was prior to the Oncotype DX Recurrence Score that came out in 2016.
My oncologist told me I was making a big mistake by not taking Tamoxifen. I told him I felt comfortable about my decision. It was a quality-of-life decision for me. I didn't want the long-term side effects of Tamoxifen. Ironically, when I decided to take the Oncotype test after chemo and radiation, I learned that I had a cancer that didn't respond favorably to Tamoxifen. That was one of the most empowering moments of my life, when my oncologist told me I picked the right treatment plan for my particular cancer.
How to Live Day to Day
Still, during chemo and radiation, every decision I made felt overwhelming. Should I eat vegan, even though I'm craving a burger? Should I juice or fast? Should I test for heavy metals and gene mutations, even though my oncologists didn't seem to care what I was eating or how many mutations I had? All of the cookbooks they gave me violated my food rules. Should I take the supplements my naturopath recommended, even though some scientific studies suggested certain supplements could have a negative impact on my health? Should I rest or exercise? Laugh or cry? Quit my job or get a divorce?
At first, I turned to Google, which as you probably know if you've arrived here, is even more overwhelming than all of the competing opinions. I read every website and book I could get my hands on about cancer. I went to a naturopath, a functional medicine doctor, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, and a wellness coach. I called other survivors and went to support groups. I talked to psychics and clairvoyants.
Breast Cancer Empowered Me
Now, almost six years after my initial diagnosis, I feel empowered by all of those decisions I made. Some of them, like the Tamoxifen, felt like hurdles I had to overcome, learning to take control of my own recovery. Other decisions, like the lettuce-wrap burger I scarfed down after my yoga class, felt insignificant, almost trivial—some days you get to break the rules. One nutritionist told me the negative thoughts I had about eating my burger probably had a worse effect on my health than the red meat itself. That's how I started praying before I eat. If thoughts and intentions can affect the molecules of water like Dr. Masaru Emoto's research proves, then why can't prayer change the molecules of the food we ingest? Maybe ancient practices like praying before your meal could alter molecules in what Rupert Sheldrake calls the morphogenic field and aren't merely religious doctrine?
"I felt empowered by all of the decisions I made."
I am grateful I was lucky enough to be able to try a lot of different alternative therapies, and I can't wait to share with you which ones were beneficial to me, along with the scientific research (or lack thereof) behind each alternative therapy I tried. I also continue to lean on my yoga practice for my foundation and can say that every time I've quit my practice, something in my life usually goes awry. So whether I like it or not, yoga is an integral part of my life. Most days I'm grateful that's the case.
Key Takeaways from My Cancer Recovery
Here are some of the lessons breast cancer taught me about myself and the disease. I don't claim to be right about any of it; these are just my takeaways, and every journey is different. I hope to expound on these points in forthcoming blog posts.
Every cancer recovery is unique, just like every body is unique. Just because something worked for someone else doesn't mean it's the right path for you.
You get to take responsibility for your cancer recovery. Is it going to be a shitshow? Or are you going to use it as a catalyst for positive changes in your life?
Yoga can help prevent breast cancer and can help mitigate the side effects of chemo, radiation, and Tamoxifen. (It can also do a ton of other beneficial things that I'll write more about soon.)
Your cancer didn't happen because of any one thing you ate or did or didn't do. You'll never know for sure what caused it. Forgive yourself and others and move on. Let go of finding the cause. For now, it's still a mystery.
There is such a thing as a cancer-prone personality, which the American Cancer Association describes as a person who tends to repress emotions and is unable to say no or set boundaries. If you fit this type like I did (and I'll write more about this in forthcoming blogs), examine it. Find ways to let go of stress and hidden anger. Learn to say no. Create the life you want.
Mind and body aren't separate. Whatever ails your mind, also ails your body. Western medicine, for all its miraculous advances, lags behind Eastern medicine in this domain. Dig deeper into your mind. Try EMDR therapy. Journal and stop lying to yourself like I was.
Many scientists like Rupert Sheldrake are beginning to believe we live in a conscious universe. Yoga can help you tap into that universal consciousness (or whatever you like to call it).
If you have a breast cancer story you want to share, feel free to do so in the comment section below or send me an email. I'd love to have a conversation or share your story. Namaste.