Survivor since 2006…
Shopping in our local grocery store one day a women who I hadn’t seen in many years said, “Hello” and also said, “ I won’t ask how you’re doing because you are the picture of health!” I loved hearing that as she was the third person who had said that to me in the past few weeks. And it felt good because I did feel good, was proud of my radiant health, my devotion to my yoga practice, healthy eating and well, I thought I looked pretty good for a 52 year old woman. I was the picture of health!
Two weeks later, after a routine colonoscopy, I was told that I had anal cancer….probably had had it for about 8 years. Anal cancer is a squamous cell carcinoma – a skin cancer- that grows in a place where “the sun don’t shine.” I wasn’t shocked but I was concerned. For years I had had bouts of bloating, constipation and more recently itching and pressure in the anal canal. My doctor had told me two years earlier that I had a hemorrhoid so I attributed these minor annoyances to that. But deep inside, I think I knew something was wrong.
I was told the good news was that this cancer is pretty curable; the not so good news is that it’s a brutal treatment and that I’d probably lose a lot of weight and be on heavy duty narcotics for a few weeks. I was up for the challenge and the opportunity to see how well I could walk the talk of being a yoga teacher. How could I walk fearlessly into the fire, how unattached could I really become to this body? I knew I needed help and called upon my two yoga teachers, John Friend and Rod Stryker. They reminded me of my inner light, of my strength, my courage and gave me specific yoga tools to help me along this journey. I also seized the opportunity to do something I had never done before….I called out for help from my friends, students, family and neighbors. I knew that this cancer was providing me with an opportunity to soften and live life in a way I had never done before. I sent out an email blast and in less than two days had a six week calendar filled with offers for rides and meal delivery and a long list of names on a waiting/backup list. How great it was to know that so many were there for me.
I delayed the treatment two weeks beyond what the doctors wanted. I wasn’t ready. I needed the time to prepare my mind…..to do this on my terms and not on the doctors or radiologists terms. The cancer was slow growing ….two weeks did not matter. Then, I was ready. Armed with my eye pillow, headset with Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep) tapes, and cue cards with healing and clearing mantras, I approached the radiation table…my husband by my side. At first the radiologists did not know how to adjust to these necessities of mine but over time, and seeing how well I was doing, they began to remind me to say my mantra and would ask if my tape was all set. The 25 minutes of time on the radiation table each day became the most enjoyable part of my day. A time to relax and remind myself of the gratitude I held in my heart, and of my desire to live each moment fully.
My meditation practice served me well also. I really was able to stay in the present moment and remain mostly unattached to this body. To be the witness…..”how interesting to be throwing up and having diarrhea at the same time…..how curious that this body does not have the strength to walk down the driveway…..hmmm…that pain is pretty intense….I wonder how long it will last?”
The narcotics….I took them one and one half days. I got burned, I lost some weight, I couldn’t sit down, I vomited, I cried and I remembered that this was not permanent that this was not me….it was just temporary…. I kept looking towards the light……and it was there….sometimes barley visible but I’d get glimpses now and then. And besides, I was determined to show the doctors that it could be done another way, to show those who said, “you have to learn to be weak” that you didn’t have to. Soft yes, weak no.
Two days before my treatment was to end, I walked into the wonderful Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards and pronounced that if one more thing was done to this body it WOULD die. They believed me and sure enough I was put into the hospital immediately and received blood transfusions….no platelets, very few red or white blood cells. I was thankful that I spoke up when I knew it was necessary. I was thankful for my wonderful doctors, nurses, and the radiology techs that had worked with me in such a positive way. How lucky I was to receive so much love!
Today, two years out, I am cancer free. It has been a long struggle to gain my strength, stamina, hair, and dignity. This disease can be humbling and humiliating. I am teaching yoga again and have found that my teaching has become greater; simply because I have opened to what is, because I now understand that we don’t know everyone’s story, that the struggle to be human is a great undertaking.
Today I am teaching yoga to other cancer patients and communicating with others who face this disease…..offering an ear and maybe sending some rays of light.
Here is what I know now that I didn’t know then…
1. My anal cancer was most likely lurking inside me for many years. It is the by-product of HPV (human papillomavirus) which is a common virus of the skin and mucous membranes. About 80% of the population has contracted HPV at some point in their lives, most likely at a time when they were most sexually active.
2. There are about 100 types of HPV, 30 of which are spread through genital contact (typically sexual). The low-risk variety (@15) can cause genital warts, and the rest, the high risk variety, can cause cervical cancer OR anal cancer. In order for the cancers to develop, the HPV virus must first be present, then factors such as smoking or an aging immune system trigger the emergence of the carcinogens.
3. In most people, the body’s immune system fights off or suppresses the HPV before it causes problems, but if the infection persists, it can cause the cells to become abnormal.
4. Many GYNs and OB-GYNs are now doing anal pap smears, which you can request. If you have hemorrhoids or are told you have them, ask for them to be looked at with an Anascope… a simple and inexpensive, although uncomfortable, office procedure. If your GYN does not perform a rectal exam, ask for it. It might well save you a lot more pain farther down the road. This cancer, caught early on, can be treated and removed easily… just as any other skin cancer caught in the early stages.
Now, when I walk into a store and meet someone that I have not seen in many years… those who don’t know my story, I am even more overjoyed when I hear them say “YOU LOOK LIKE THE PICTURE OF HEALTH!” Life is Marvelous and so full, my cup overfloweth with grace and abundance! I have not forgotten my journey because to forget might mean missing out on what I have learned and yet I do not hold onto my cancer. I do not really see myself as a survivor…I have trouble with that word….I never was at risk of not surviving….what ever was to be was to be….it was all about the journey and how I lived that. Like all of life, it cannot be measured in time but in how we live it ….like art, like yoga, like dance….its all about the process….the transition from one point to the next…..
Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.