When I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia (a blood cancer), I became Cancer Girl. I wished for a cape à la Superman, but instead the nurses gave me wristbands with my medical record number. Soon I no longer had hair or even an identity beyond a patient wanting to live another day. Even during those dark months before I received a life-saving stem-cell transplant, yogic practices stayed by my side and helped me cope.
Before I became Cancer Girl, I was a married mother with a twelve-month-old baby. I also worked fulltime and taught two morning yoga classes each week. I loved guiding my students through slow vinyasa-style flows as well as leading them in pranayama (breath work) and meditation. I had a happy life.
Everything changed on February 10, 2011, when I learned of my cancer diagnosis.
Immediately, I went into the hospital for twenty-four-hour chemotherapy treatments to try to get to remission. I was trapped in a hospital room, often confined due to fatigue to the hospital bed. Yet I still practiced my pranayama and meditation.
During my hospital time, the nurses had to do many things to keep the potential for infection away, including changing my Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC) line dressings once a week. This dressing change was quite painful. I relied on a breathing meditation to focus away from the pain to a wonderful place in my mind, where the ocean waves softly lapped against the shimmering sand.
After my stem-cell transplant, I often took walks around the hospital floor with my IV pole as company. I would walk to the rhythm of my breath, a kind of walking meditation. It became a daily ritual until I was released from the hospital.
Once home, my hair began to grow back along with my eyelashes and eyebrows. I no longer looked like Cancer Girl, but I still struggled to find my identity. Yogic practices showed me the path.
I took yoga classes with wonderful teachers who guided me through adaptations and accommodations, since I was not strong enough to hold vigorous poses. The teachers were kind and understanding that, though I had taught yoga, I had what is called “chemo-brain,” which made it difficult for me to remember the names and shapes of the yoga poses I used to demonstrate.
In the months and years to come, I transitioned from Cancer Girl to a new self, post-cancer. The change really occurred once I started to practice not only asana but also pranayama and meditation. The combination of the three brought stability to my mind and body. I could rest, relax, and renew, discovering all the wonderful little things in life by being present in the moment.
When I became stronger, I meditated sitting up, with hands on my thighs, watching for the spaces between thoughts. These little nuggets of perfection came to me sometimes when not meditating. That’s when I knew I was no longer Cancer Girl but truly myself.
Though much has changed since my life-saving transplant five years ago, I still practice my yogic ways. I teach asana, pranayama, and meditation at workshops in my hometown, have my own home practice, and take classes from gifted teachers. I treasure the yogic practices that brought me back from Cancer Girl to my true self.
Erin Michaela Sweeney is a writer, mommy, yogini, daughter, editor, sister, and napper extraordinaire who lives in Claremont, California. She has practiced yoga since 2002 and trained in 2005 to teach yoga. In August 2015, she published Every Breath Is a Gift: Reflections on My Leukemia Journey. Her next nonfiction project is tentatively titled Rest, Relax, and Renew: Beyond Your Cancer Identity. She also writes fiction and poetry. Erin connects with readers via her newsletter (bit.ly/1Rtti2g), Facebook (Erin Michaela Sweeney – writer), and Twitter (@erin_m_sweeney).
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