It turns out that yoga teacher training is a good place to find out you have cancer. It’s your sixth weekend together (you meet once a month), and you have just sat down on your mats. The teacher asks everyone to share a random act of kindness that you have done since you last met. When it’s your turn, you say, “A good friend slipped on black ice, breaking her ankle in two places. I brought her food and taught her class.”
The next person goes. Then the next. Your phone screen lights up. “Excuse me,” you whisper, tiptoeing out of the rich wood studio. Downstairs in the cold cement lunchroom, you answer, “Hello?” Your fingers steady you on the folding table you use for your silent (not so silent) meals.
“I’m calling with the results of your biopsy. It came back positive.”
Healthy bars, nuts, and fiber bombs litter the top of the table. There’s even seaweed.
The voice kindly tells you what type of cancer you have—invasive mammary carcinoma—and that it is estrogen and progesterone positive. It is ten millimeters, which is usually good. You are forty-seven, which is often not.
The voice on the phone doesn’t have much more information to give. Can’t know stage until surgery. Yes, surgery. Can’t know lumpectomy or mastectomy. Can’t know radiation or chemotherapy until more results.
You go back upstairs to the studio. The wood glows. The women glow too, glad to be back in this space and away from their hectic lives. You sink to your mat and stare at its brick red color, the color of the root chakra, the chakra that is supposed to ground you when life assails.
You listen. Don’t listen. You get asked, “What do you think?”
You try to say something coherent. “I—I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“I’m sorry—I—I just found out I have breast cancer.”
Support and love erupt. A number of the other women start crying.
After practice and meditation, the yoga teacher asks you to put your hands on your left breast. Then she invites everyone else to do the same. “We send you love and light.”
Vultures can offer a diagnosis of the rabbit on the road.
When comes a diagnosis, a snake of fear.
A diagnosis is a jailer, closing you inside a prison cell. Welcome dripping rock walls. And legions of rats.
Such. Thus. Hands. Heart. Broken. Open. Make. Space. Diagnosis. Occupation. Real. Dead. Future.
It turns out that yoga teacher training might not be a good place to find out that you have cancer. That night, you watch a film about shadow sides, about how people bury the parts of themselves that they don’t like. And then it comes, the claim that has been made a number of times throughout your training: you cause your disease. Your dis-ease.
You have given yourself cancer.
You have a steady diet of sweet potatoes, cauliflower, chickpeas. You work out seven days a week. You have the thigh gap that everyone wants and you punish your body every day to maintain it. No one, except maybe your husband, knows the full extent of the clawing dark that you carry around inside.
Have you given yourself cancer?
One of your fellow yoginis tells you that research has proven that there is a link between emotions and breast cancer. Someone else says that this has happened because you have a lesson to learn. Another suggests that you should welcome this into you body, the way the Benedictines at the university you teach at welcome every guest.
You consider your life—all of this feels true. These voices echo the very thoughts in your head.
“You’ve got to shut that shit down,” a very close friend and colleague says when you tell her this. It’s been seven months since her own diagnosis and surgery, and she’s still experiencing pain, difficulty.
Your husband’s response? “No one, not even the holiest or lowliest monastery, had to host the murderous guest.”
It’s almost the perfect bubble. A weekend of meditation. Long corpse poses.
You lay there. Practicing death. You can’t move. You let your body be flooded by awareness. A strangeness. Knowing and not knowing. Alive with a baby bomb someone or something (maybe you) has strapped to the inside of your tit. You hate your tits, you love your breasts, and you call them tits and breasts and buy shirts just to show them off. You are healthy and not healthy. You are who you have always been but who is this new you? That has a diagnosis. You have a thing inside of you and it has made of you a thing. The gods in white coats (and their minions) will play with your naked body. A Barbie put in this pose. Now this one. In just over a month, hands will slide your body onto a cold metal table—is it the same kind that is used in autopsies?—and a knife will open your body. Like a baked potato. You will not be able to cry or scream or move. The rhythm of the room for everyone else is you. Alive. But you will feel so asleep some Romeo might mistake you for dead. Love will turn away. Do you hear? It’s strange. Strangeness. Knowing and not knowing. You have no idea. Except for some pain, you felt fine. No, you didn’t. You really didn’t. This is your fault. This is not your fault. This is your body crying out to you. This is. You. Crying. Out.
Your yoga teacher buys you expensive supplements and puts them in your food bag. She will not let you reimburse her, even when she hands you a vial of frankincense, the kind of oil the wise men brought to Jesus.
You believed so fervently in that narrative that you went to seminary straight out of college. Faith soon turned to wilderness, so you left. Since then, you have almost quit praying entirely. At first it was because you didn’t believe in the divine anymore. Now it’s because you worry you are not good enough.
Sunday morning you sit in meditation and at the end, your teacher plays a mantra that repeats over and over, “Thy will be done; may thy will and mine be one.”
Oh God, please.
It’s hard to pray fervently when you have bubbles of snot coming out of your nose.
You will get home and cry in your husband’s arms. You will watch a movie where women kick ass. You will go out to eat. Isn’t protein good to build the body back up after surgery? You will make yourself eat some shrimp.
You will wake and head to work. The friend who is seven months into her journey will give you a book. This is what a mastectomy looks like. On the opposite page, a quiz—you will have to decide if you would resent giving up your breast. You will have to decide if you will live in fear that the cancer might come back.
A cousin will send you a card. Inside, you will find a Q-tip dipped in water from Lourdes and wrapped in a plastic baggie. You will do as you are told and dab it on your forehead and heart.
Someone will put you on as many prayer lists as possible and then tell you to read Matthew 9:2. “Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” You will not underline the word their as you were told to do. You will, however, stare at the last four words.
Again and again you will hear, “But you’re so healthy,” which feels like another way of saying, “So what did you do to give yourself cancer?” You will hear, “This is what you should eat, drink, do, believe. Oh the miracles that are in store for you!” Oh my.
It will turn out that telling people this news is like walking down a dark and tangled trail. You never know what will jump out—something that hurts or helps. When you mention this to a friend, she will suggest, “Say what they do down South. Bless your heart.” Because the ones you tell are the ones who love you, who are trying to deal with their own fear and helplessness. Maybe even their own mortality.
You live far enough away that you spend the night in the quiet space of the studio. The first night after you learn of your diagnosis you do not sleep well but better than you thought you would. The second night, you experience the rare treat of falling asleep almost as soon as you close your eyes. You do not wake until 3:41 a.m., when you hear the stairs creaking. Someone is coming.
When the next creak comes, you remember the cassette tape of scary stories your kids used to listen to. “I am standing on the second stair.”
The stairway is on your left. On your right, the long blinds by the sliding glass door suddenly rustle, as if something has darted through them. Cat. Mouse. Disease-ridden rat.
You are not imagining these sounds.
When they happen again, you spring out of bed and dash to the bathroom. Flipping on the light, you bend your knees, the way your old basketball coach taught you to plant yourself when facing an opponent.
A slow creep out into the room, a peek under the Murphy bed, a glance behind the blinds.
Convinced enough that there is nothing there, you turn off the light and pad back to your sleeping bag.
There it is again. The creaking. The blinds. The wind. Now you can hear it—pressing into the body of the building. Finding the cracks. Making its presence known.
You will carry your cousin’s Q-tip in your bra. Until it falls apart.
You will be a best-case scenario. You will be a best-case scenario.
Note the shift to future tense. Note how the future, tense, suddenly becomes imperative.
Cover image by Michelle (designedforadventure)