Monday, August 1, 2016

7 Ways to Live More Fully From a Breast Cancer Survivor

June 2nd, 2006

by Ashley Cleveland, CSOY Alumni and VP of the College of Chiropractic at Parker University

Ten years ago today, we dressed in our bright colors and put on our make­-up to go to my final session of chemotherapy. I was bald, with no eyebrows or eyelashes, but I put on a flowing dress of pink and green, did my best to add some pop to my skin that the drugs had stripped of color. There was a cake that said “we kicked cancer’s ass,” and I wore a crown. I was surrounded by my faithful tribe of she ­warriors who had been with me from the moment I found a tiny, almond­ shaped nugget in my breast through each treatment. 

Though I was young and felt good, believed in my own health, in the goodness of my body, learning that I had cancer was scary. I couldn’t extricate myself from the cultural weight of this disease – I only had to look at the faces of those I told, hear the change in their tone of voice. Having cancer made me face the possibility that life could be much shorter than I had imagined – and perhaps more painful. The odds suggest that many of us who’ve had cancer will experience recurrence, metastasis. It’s like being told, “Cancer is going to kill you – maybe not today, this week, month or year, but eventually.” You have learned, at age 36, how you are going to die. 

For a short time after I finished cancer treatment, I was apprehensive about each new ache or pain. Every moment waiting to be released following a mammogram was torture, each passing second a confirmation of my deepest fears. 

How could I possibly live in the face of this? 

The length of my life, I’ve discovered, doesn’t matter. What matters is what I do with whatever amount of time I have. What matters is whether I allow my living – the joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, births and deaths, sunshine and dark – to teach me to be more human. 

As a reminder on this special day when scientific medicine would call me cured – which is a far cry from healed – here is a list of things I started to really learn when I got cancer. 

1. Never treat the body as a battleground or war zone; rather, enter it as a temple, a sacred space housing the wisdom of the entire universe. Even, and perhaps most especially, when I experienced my body as some sort of traitor, I needed to embrace it as me. The false sense I’d had that it was separate from me, a territory to be conquered, a slave to be driven by the desires of my mind – I want to compete in that race, look like that model, stay up late and drink, get up early and work out – had contributed to my sickness. I didn’t feel my body from the inside, live in it like a well-­tended home. Despite my so-­called yoga practice, I was still coming at it all from the outside…do the postures, do the breathing, perform your way through life, play the role. My poor body was the flash­ point of all my attempts at control. And through the experience of cancer, it became the doorway to my healing. 

2. Plan your journey, and wisely choose your traveling companions. Medically, there was a map for this journey. There was a sentinel node biopsy and axillary dissection, an implantation of a chemotherapy port, a series of chemotherapy treatments on a bi­-weekly schedule, with shots and blood work in between. There was radiation and then years of monitoring by my oncologist. I added a number of important travel stops to that map, though. There were two chiropractors providing me with massage, adjustments and nutritional support. There was yoga class – sometimes not very energetic, but I was on the mat learning to accept limitations. There were cleanses. There was a lot of Food Network while I lay on the couch not wanting to eat. There were walks that exhausted me. There was raucous laughter from my crew during every chemotherapy treatment. There were trips to the lake to rest surrounded by trees and water and sunsets. This journey wasn’t always fun, but we did it together, with honesty and heart and grit. Is there any other way to travel through life? 

3. Everything doesn’t have a rational explanation. The ironies of being a chiropractor, marathon­ runner, health freak with cancer in her mid­ thirties were not lost on me. At some point, there is nothing to do but shrug, laugh, pull up your big­ girl pants and get on with it. Believe me, I’ve tried anger as a means of getting through life, proudly cultivating my tough­girl image as a teenager and throughout college…but, I’ve come to realize that hardening the exterior just makes it more difficult for me to get out and anyone else to get in. Living life is different from explaining life, and when I get to the end of it all, I will want to have felt it, not crafted really exquisite arguments about it that I play on repeat in my mind. 

4. Feel your feelings, and let them out – laugh big belly laughs and cry big heaving sobs. This doesn’t mean I’ve become a fan of vomiting all my neuroses on everyone around me. But, I’ve come to understand how destructive it is to let the energy of anger, hatred, unexpressed grief, our loud inner no, build up in our cells and tissues, in our joints, in our heart and lungs and sunken chest. Life’s only half ­lived if we only dance the fast dances and never snuggle up close when the slow song plays. Likewise, life’s only half ­lived, and we aren’t fully human or fully alive, if we only allow ourselves to express certain types of emotions... 

5. Kick your inner critic to the curb. My inner critic talks non-­stop – well, sometimes during meditation or yoga practice or a sublime moment when I’m looking lovingly at my dog, she shuts up. The voice in my head says I’m not good enough, pretty enough, welcomed, wanted, understood, appreciated, talented, fit…whatever is good and true and right in the world or in womanhood, I am NOT. But what does she know? She says similar stuff about other people, too. Why? Because she is afraid, and she doesn’t know what else to do with her time. She’s afraid if she isn’t whipping me into a frenzied state of feeling like I’m not enough, I might not need her anymore, she might – poof! – disappear. So, more time in meditation, breathing, yoga, snuggling with my dog…in the heart space of forgiveness and gratitude. She’s melting like the wicked witch she is… 

6. There is always room for more forgiveness. I used to be really invested in my victimhood. I’ve been wounded thousands of times. And my sense of injustice and self­-righteousness fueled me. My wounds don’t make me unique, however. Everybody has been wounded. When my wounds meet other people’s wounds, we just keeping wounding each other. The only way not to transmit my wounds is to transform them. And that requires forgiving those who’ve wounded me – by recognizing that they are humans who act out of their wounds, too. How can I extend compassion to them? In truth, my wounds have been my teachers. I have had very good teachers, including cancer. 

7. There is always room for more gratitude. Even on the worst day of cancer treatment, the sun might come through the French doors of my little condominium in the most dazzling display. Thank you. Food might suddenly taste good again after weeks of nausea. Thank you. A back bend might be possible today for the first time after surgery to remove lymph nodes. Thank you. My friends are smiling at me and loving me though I feel sick and ugly from chemotherapy. Thank you. Though we are afraid, we are together. Thank you, thank you, thank you. My healing started when I got cancer. It took me deeply into my body where decades of emotion had been buried in my cells and tissues, kept safely away from consciousness. Ten years on, I am still unwinding the tension, uncovering the secrets, unlearning the patterns. I don’t wish cancer on anyone. But I do recognize that it woke me up in a way that nothing else in my life had…From the deepest, most spacious place in my heart, the place where you and I are one, I bow to you in gratitude for being a traveling companion on this journey back to life...

Dr. Ashley Cleveland is a chiropractor, educator, Vice President of the College of Chiropractic at Parker University and student of Gina Caputo who completed the first ever yoga teacher training program at Kansas Siddhi Yoga and taught with Gina Caputo at her studio in Kansas City, MO.