July 5, 2020
Transformation, metamorphosis, alteration, and renewal are all intricately descriptive words representing the physical manifestations of the odyssey of cancer. As I observe each scar and move through each hot flash, I am left with steadfast reminders that I am now a different person than before. While I may be back to living in California, teaching, have my hair returning, and am getting physically stronger everyday, there's still something disquieting that is imbedded within me. I have moments that stop me dead in my tracks and like a punch to the gut, forcibly remind me that I'm forever changed. I've been vehemently remodelled both on the outside and within my spiritual core.
I don't think I immediately understood the complete extent of this cancer storm. Firstly, during treatment, I was entirely focused on getting through and optimizing my health at every opportunity. Particularly, with yoga and meditation. They had been important in my life prior to cancer, however, after diagnosis my practice and the community I had around yoga, became my lifeline. Each pose taught me that I could always find breath to lead me through difficult moments. Also, it taught me never to underestimate my body's strength. Daily yoga and meditation became methods of grounding for me.
After chemotherapy finished, I maintained an unwavering focus on healing from surgery and battling infections. Then my attention was devoted to setting my life back on track from where it was prior to the illness. I had needed to prove to myself that nothing, not even cancer, could hold me back. Well, I've checked all the boxes and completed all my tasks. As such, I expect to return to my former self, the one from before cancer entered my life. Sadly, that's not so, not even in the slightest.
Instead, I'm realizing on an ongoing basis that I've been left changed. There are some aspects of my new self that I've been able to adjust and celebrate. However, there are other parts of me hadn't been emotionally processed at all. For instance, I felt that once I had lost all my hair, I was devastated, but I had worked through it and even confidently wore my bald head. As my hair returned, I've been growing accustomed to its new texture, curl and appearance.
Moreover, I had a recent consultation with my new oncology team at UCSD. They had strongly advised that I undergo a salpingectomy (removal of fallopian tubes) simultaneous to my upcoming breast reconstruction surgery. This is to reduce the chances of cancer from returning. In addition, I have been instructed that I soon ought to have my entire reproductive system removed. This means that any chance of ever naturally conceiving (provided I'm not in permanent menopause) are gone. This was another big hit for me, however, at this moment, I feel like I've been able to work through this and have made peace with it. Particularly, as the end result means that I get to live.
While those areas I had surprisingly come to terms with, I discovered that there were parts of this healing process that I had completely turned a blind eye to. For example, I realized that I had never mindfully touched my left chest, with all its scars, tough skin and discolouration. I had tended to it during the infections and regularly clean the area, but never laid my hand over that side of my body. I had even started to ignore it. When I am wearing the bra with the prosthetic in the left cup, I wouldn't notice any difference in my appearance. At bedtime, upon changing and taking off the bra, I would climb into bed and immediately reach for my mastectomy pillow. This is a small heart-shaped pillow that I had used after surgery to help with padding and comfort. However, I now continue to lay it over my left side, not realizing that I was doing that so I wouldn't have to acknowledge or feel what was missing.
Recently, I virtually attended a talk for younger (diagnosed at 40 and under) women who were at various stages of their breast cancer journey. The discussion was around rediscovering ourselves, something I ignorantly thought I had already done. During this talk, other women spoke about reclaiming their sensuality and confidence within their transformed bodies. Various women shared how components of that restoration journey began by first viewing the surgical scars, then laying a hand over the mastectomy/lumpectomy site, even eventually feeling the different textures of skin and the new sensations that accompany it. Even if just for a moment. Upon hearing the women discuss their perspectives in moving towards reacquiring their womanhood, I came to the startling realization that I had been neglecting acknowledging my newly transformed body.
As I explored what was going on within me, I discovered that I had been battling feelings of resentment and annoyance over this new body of mine. I knew my body for the first 40 years of my life. This current version has aches, pains, discomforts, numbness, tingling, hot flashes, altered metabolism and fatigues much quicker than before. After participating in the group discussion, I had resolved myself to going through the arduous task of learning to love the transformed version of my body. Through it all, I wanted to connect my emotions to my body, so that they may be celebrated as one. I felt that although I've had to given up so many parts of myself physically and mentally through cancer, I won't give up all hope. I need to find that love for me again and cherish it.
Fortunately, the world of art and creativity opened itself to me as a means of creating space for that rediscovery. I had been invited by the very knowledgeable and talented naturopathic doctor/photographer, Natiya Guin . She not only was a previous student of mine, but also has made it her mission to empower others to heal with artistry. Having my photographs taken with my body as it is now, before I go through more surgery was something that had been on my mind for a while. I felt like I must have put it out to the universe, as Natiya connected with me shortly after my thoughts around it.
I was both excited and nervous by the idea of having my photographs done, as I am now. Was I ready to expose my new self to others? More importantly, to myself?
I had decided to incorporate my Indian clothes within the yoga outfit I had worn for the session. For me, Indian clothing, is a source of comfort and a reminder of where I come from. Standing in the studio ready to begin, Natiya asks me if I'd like any music. Perhaps I was inspired by my Indian outfit, but I requested bhangra (Punjabi folk) music. Immediately, the studio was filled with rhythmic cadences of dhol beats and high twangs of the thumbi. I felt the music vibrate through my being and began to move to the energetic music. Hips swaying, one hand resting on my hip and the moving above my head. I moved my feet in concert to the vivacious notes sung by Sukhshinda Shinda. I was happy to be reminded of my culture and background. Dancing as I've done so many times before at family weddings, parties and celebrations. Then, after I was warmed up, we switched the music to something a bit more subdued. This time, it was the hallowed, soleful sounds of the bamboo bansuri (flute). I began stretching and moving through some yoga poses. Each pose and breath bringing me deeper into my centre. At one point, I had taken an eagle pose, and stood in complete stillness. Maintaining this pose and hearing the slow instrumental indian music in the background allowed me to travel within myself and shed layers of grief that had encased me. I weep tears of sadness over recalling the trying moments of the cancer journey, the bittersweet frustration of acknowledging that I am forever and irrevocably altered by the experience. Then, as if the music had travelled on this path with me, the bansari switched from being mournful to moving to a more uplifting and hopeful tune. I felt a surge of strength surround me, lift me up and remind me that yes, I have been through tough times, but that I'm tougher. I am strong and brave! I felt a renewed sense of tenacity within my current self.
After we ended the photoshoot, Natiya showed me a few pictures she had taken, and I was completely taken aback. For the first time I understood that I am beautiful. It took viewing my images through the eyes of a camera lens for me to finally take notice. Beauty represented through cancer treatment, the surgeries, tears, laughter, my thinned and fragil eyebrows/eyelashes, the perpetual twitch in my lower eyelid, and the ongoing the hot flashes. Also, the scars, the lack of sensation on my chest and the nerve pain are all part of the new and evolving me. I'm advocating to take notice in my beauty and I hope you advocate for your's.
Below, you will see parts of the photoshoot with Natiya and the representations from writings in my blog posts. This is my vulnerability and power displayed. Thank you eternally Natiya for helping me heal through your art.
Through Natiya's Lens:
"...during moments when I was feeling my most frail and vulnerable, I looked to my husband, James, and could see that his bright blue eyes seem to reflect some hidden reservoir of tenacity and willpower he convinced resided within me. During such times I had to peer within the
recesses of myself to gather some deep ancestrally motivated volition and venture to uphold the Strength and Victory that resides within the very meaning of my name."
"Music is something that has the ability to linger in the background of a conversation, steadily drumming a finger or two in acknowledgement of the beat, or can be in the forefront of a dance, where you're moving and swaying along with the rhythm. Either way, the influence of its presence is salient and palpable, even if just subtly. I often feel that in my life, music has helped give me motivation, strength, or the passage to release my tears."
"I used to love jumping onto my swings and trying to get as high off the ground as possible. It felt like I was flying, like I was free. I was doing the same thing here, pumping my legs to obtain further momentum, experiencing that lurching sensation in my stomach as I would reach the highest point, then throwing my head back view the world upside down as the swing would head downwards again. I did this over and over again for a while, having a palpable sense of thrill and joy as I did."
"I feel like I was rebuilding a new me from the earth up, now on the other side of this cancer cyclone. This new me is learning about the courage that comes from having my tribe backing me up. There are no walls here to be torn down by a tornado, instead, durability comes from the combined energy of all those around me expressing their positive vibrations and support."
"On one particular summer day, my 6 year old nemesis was riding around our cul-de-sac on his bicycle without training wheels....I had just come out on my bike that morning, and was mocked by Jason for still needing training wheels.... I immediately turned around, ran back into the house and told my mom that if
Jason can ride a two wheeled bike, then so could I. I ordered the training wheels off my bike so that I could practice...So, I spent the rest of the day riding around the cul-de-sac, with my grandfather in front of me trying to learn to remain steady on my now two-wheeled bike. I fell off my bike numerous times, but would get right back up again and keep trying. I ended up tearing my overalls and was bleeding from my knees and elbows. I then ran into the house crying from having fallen, and my mom bandaged me up, changed my clothes and I had gone out again. Over and over this would happen, however I was determined and didn't want to give up. Until eventually, and I remember this vividly, I was watching the sun set and riding my 2 wheeled bike. Bleeding from my knees and elbows but thrilled that I finally did it. I don't remember feeling any pain, just joy of the accomplishment. I triumphed over something just out of sheer will, focus, a deep desire to succeed. In addition, a slight yearning to have one less thing that Jason can make fun of me for. Interestingly enough, I still have some faint scars on my knees from that day. Should I ever lose sight of the power of dedication, the two women who have always cheered me on would relay this story to me. This story is the creation of one of my most memorable puzzle pieces, it has replayed in my life in various ways from academics to key life events. I may feel beaten, raw and emotional, but through it all, keep getting back up and working towards my goal."
"If I dig deep and search within myself for why my usual mirth and positive attitude hasn't been delivering its normal healing power, I feel that it stems from the feeling that cancer is itself a lonely beast. I don't know anyone in my immediate circle who has gone through breast cancer.
My paternal grandmother passed away from breast cancer in India long before I ever knew her. Now although I'm told I look like her, act like her, obviously have her BRCA-1 genetic mutation, and have poor vision like she did, I never got the chance to speak with her about her experiences. She would be the only person who could appreciate the fears, rage and frustrations that are wrecking havoc within me. However, even as I write that I realize that in some way, I am also her second chance. I get to be the second chance at surviving and thriving which life didn't afford her the opportunity to do. I want to honour and respect her memory by engaging in all the resources within me and through those around me. Others may not understand what I am going through, but I know spiritually that my grandmother does and I take a great deal of comfort in that. I'm uplifted by that thought and can feel my knots loosening around my chest. Soft tears of relief replace the fast flowing angry tears that I had when I first started writing this. So, goodbye boobies I'll prepare for your departure and hello to life, I plan to be here a long long time."
"Maintaining this pose and hearing the slow instrumental indian music in the background caused me to travel within myself and release layers of grief. I weep tears of sadness over remembering the difficult moments of the cancer journey. Then, as if the music had travelled on this path with me, the bansari switched from being mournful to moving to a more uplifting and hopeful tune. I felt a surge of strength surround me and remind me that I have been through tough times, but that I'm tougher. I am strong and brave! I felt a renewed tenacity in my current self."
"So in the end, I'm now living cancer free, and I have the battle scars on what remains of my left chest to prove it. I'm proud of myself for having gone through this cancer journey and being able to come out the other side and tell the tale. Definitely a huge lottery win."
"As I look throughout this past year, I recognize that I had learned an incredibly valuable lesson from my grandmother, the power of sister-hood from my kindred spirits, and my soul-sisters. I burst into tears reflecting back on the meaningful display of linked courage and support that the women community of my life have bestowed. Never in my life had I understood the power of their love and commitment, until it came to this journey. I can't begin to fathom how I'd ever completely repay any of it either....may we all live our lives in the circle of our sisters"
"By sharing my story, it's my hope and prayer that someone may benefit from it. I aim to normalize the discussion around the fear and anxieties that come up with cancer or any chronic/difficult condition. Also, it has been healing for me to share my journey to this community."