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How I leaned on my meditation and yoga practice through breast cancer and COVID

On November 25th, 2019 I received the phone call no one ever wants to receive. My youngest son had arrived home from his first semester at Boston College and I was informed the morning he arrived that I had invasive lobular breast cancer. What the hell is that?? Cancer was not at all on my radar. I was committed to a robust self care practice, eating and sleeping well, leading yoga retreats, and managing stress with grace. Cancer would never land on my doorstep! As life would have it, my journey as a cancer patient began on that inauspicious day in November. Appointments were made and calls for help from my spiritual pals and family were placed, and I moved into action.

The fear that gripped me was like nothing I’d experienced. My breathing was shallow, and my chest was constantly tight. I reached out for help and graciously received it, however I didn’t want to talk about what was going on. I was wracked with fear as my husband, my sister and I started down the road of fact finding, doctor’s visits, and developing a treatment plan. My husband woke up in the mornings and asked me where my mind was all night. I unloaded my crazy, fear-based projections as well as the absolute confusion I felt around which treatment plan to pursue. He would come home from work, night after night and we would replay my same thoughts and fears. Rinse and repeat. Who knew there were so many different forms of breast cancer. Each person’s cancer has unique characteristics, and I was given multiple treatment options. The doctors assured me that options are a good thing! I was scared to death and had no idea what to do!!!”

This is where my background in yoga and meditation came in. I started my day with readings, prayers and meditation. To help me navigate this challenging time, I added morning journaling along with a daily bedtime practice of writing and letting go of my fears, praying and listening to meditations to help me get to sleep. I am not sure how I survived that first month of fearful appointments and two surgeries. I decided pretty quickly to have a lumpectomy to remove the cancer, however that wasn’t enough. The surgery didn’t come back with clear margins around the detected cancerous tissue, so I needed to go back to the decision drawing board. To further complicate matters, I have a BRCA2 mutation, which is identical to my mom’s and she is an ovarian cancer survivor of 25 years. Therefore, the doctors started hinting at a double mastectomy course of action for me, which was a big leap from the initial stage 0, easy lumpectomy. Now I was stage 2B with genetic factors further complicating my decision.

Would it be another lumpectomy or a double mastectomy? And of course, all the doctors sounded like I had pulled a fire alarm when they heard about the gene and my mom’s cancer. Soon I had to make a non- negotiable decision. I needed to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes in order to prevent ovarian cancer, which is a very hard cancer to detect in its early stages. The answers didn’t come, the fear and confusion persisted, and I persisted as well. I didn’t give up, I couldn’t. I had a robust tool box available to me after many years of practice, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that to continue each day I had to first take care of me. They say what you do first thing in the morning sets you up for your day. I believe this is true, so I kept at it daily, beginning and ending my day with all my rituals in place.

Two days before Christmas, my husband came with me to an appointment with the medical oncologist. This was the appointment that would tell me if I needed chemotherapy in addition to surgery. I came very close to cancelling the appointment. I woke up that morning thinking “forget it, I just want to enjoy my husband and the boys being together and I don’t want any more information.” I really didn’t want to hear the answer, I wanted it to all go away until after Christmas. Thank God I showed up for my appointment to hear the good news. I did not need chemotherapy and my oncologist was very helpful in providing us with information about the benefits of a double mastectomy. We went home and had a family meeting - my husband, my 3 boys ranging from 19 to 23 and I sat down to discuss - mom’s breasts, ugh! Together we concluded that I should go with the double mastectomy and when they did the reconstruction surgery, I would have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed at the same time. This was an awful lot for me to absorb. Just a month and a half prior, I was a healthy 53-year old woman leading physical, emotional and spiritual cleanses, teaching yoga, meditating, eating well and not drinking alcohol. My mind could quickly go to this isn’t fair, why is this happening to me? My body betrayed me. If this can happen to me then what might be next! I basically was given a hard lesson in letting go and surrendering to the fact that I had absolutely no control over what was happening. There was nothing I did or didn’t do, it just happened. That’s a scary place for someone like me to be in. I liked to think I was doing a pretty good job at living a healthy lifestyle.

During my writing, prayer and meditation time, I was able to see clearly that I had to move to a new level of trust in my spiritual being. Spirituality is unique to each of us. All we really need to do is find a connection with something bigger than ourselves so we can release some of the burden and fears of self-reliance.

I had my surgery in January of 2020, and continued to practice my daily ritual, even living with fear. The recovery was challenging. I had lots of support and made it through. Next step was planning for reconstruction and removal surgery. I had a great plan. March 12th, I went for my pre surgery appointments in NYC and was all set to go and then as we all know, the world shut down! Once again, I had to surrender. My surgeries were postponed. Patience is not my long suit. Once I am in action, I’m determined to move forward and get it done!

March 12th, I drove to our beach house in RI and my husband and 3 boys joined me for the next few months of COVID. I heard nothing from my doctors about my surgery until the end of May, they wanted me to come in June 19th. This was not my plan! I wanted to be done with all of this by the time summer hit. Now, I considered postponing until September so I could enjoy the summer in my special place. Once again, I hit my meditation cushion and got quiet - I chose to go ahead with the surgery.

As I write this, it is exactly one year from the week I received the diagnosis. I realize there is a reason for everything. For today I choose gratitude, for my family, my health and the opportunity to give others hope through my experience one day at a time.

Published November 2020

About Karen Dillon

I was introduced to yoga in 1991 at the age of 25 during a pivotal moment in my life. Soon after meditation took hold of me too. Meditation has become a daily practice for me for the last several years and I am grateful to share this gift of grace with others.My yoga and meditation classes are a space for my students and I to journey a path together of gentle awareness of our thoughts, attitudes and actions, using our awareness to line up ourselves with who we truly want to be and at the same time getting comfortable with a true connection with ourselves.

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