Christina Applegate, the ditzy, sexpot sister from "Married With Children", and now the amnesiac former-uber-beeyotch from "Samantha Who?" has been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. According to her publicist, Christina's prognosis is excellent. Actually, the publicist went even further than that, stating that the cancer is "not life-threatening" ", which I must confess, confused me a bit, since I can't seem to think of cancer as anything but life-threatening, but hey, maybe that's just because of my own personal experience with it.
Diagnosed at 36 with early stage breast cancer, my doctors told me that my prognosis was excellent ... provided that I treat the cancer aggressively. Aggressive, eh? Well, they didn't have to tell me twice. Gamely, I waged a full-on war with breast cancer that included the medical equivalents of hand-to-hand combat (double mastectomy), biological warfare (chemo), smart bombs (Herceptin) and \neutron bombs (radiation).
Six years later, to look at me, you would hardly know, unless you looked down my dress and saw the scars on my chest. Now, I hope that you don't look down my dress, but if you were to happen to see my scars, what I would want is for you to regard them as the mark of a valiant and victorious warrior. Albeit, a valiant and victorious warrior who has long ago hung up her fighting gear.
See, my feeling is that the moment you hear the words, "you have breast cancer", no matter what the stage, no matter what the prognosis, you become a warrior. Sometimes you're right on the front line, facing surgery or chemo or seemingly endless days of radiation. Sometimes you're in the "bunker", meeting with doctors, assembling opinions, planning your strategy. Most often, you're living the day-to-day in the aftermath of battle, occupying your body with a sense of watchfulness, the way a military occupies a newly conquered nation, hoping to create a sense of order out of anarchy, and never quite sure when or if there might be another outbreak of war.
But the thing is, however brave and honorable it may be, being a warrior takes up tremendous energy. Regarding our bodies as something to conquer and hold at bay disconnects us from our bodies and detracts from our ability to experience the "divine" in ourselves. We begin to regard our bodies with distrust, fear and dread. So how does one deal with the diagnosis, treatment and survival of breast cancer while at the same time not waging war against oneself?
In a word: yoga.
The word "yoga" is a Sanskrit term, often translated as "union" or "connection". In my own experience as a 36 year-old breast cancer patient and now six-year breast cancer survivor, yoga was the means by which I began the process of re-connecting with my body, a body that had profoundly failed my mind's expectations through illness and the effects of the treatments for that illness. Yoga was the means by which I began to turn the blackened, burnt out battlefields of my fight against cancer into fertile ground for an emerging sense of self.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was a 36 year old mother of two who had trained for and run three marathons, figure-skated and biked avidly and had always practiced yoga as an adjunct to long hours of strenuous endurance training. My diagnosis was shocking and humbling. It struck me as a breach of some sort of pact I had made with my body...to exercise and to eat right in exchange for remaining healthy.
Feeling shaken, anxious and depressed, I had little energy to exercise. Then, after my double mastectomy, I was ordered NOT to exercise for six weeks. By the time I was medically released to begin exercising again, I was too exhausted and ill from chemo to go on the long runs of my past. Skating created soreness in my chest and ribcage (the result of the muscle-manipulation involved in my mastectomies). And the physical therapist I had met with in the hospital had warned me off of my beloved long-distance bike rides, claiming (incorrectly, I now believe) that the gripping action of my hands on the handlebars would set the stage for lymphedema (a chronic, debilitating and disfiguring blockage and buildup of lymph fluid in an area of the body adjacent to the site of lymph node removal; for women who have had their lymph nodes removed in connection with breast surgery, the possibility of developing lymphedema is a lifelong concern).
I had no idea what exercise would feel good or "work" for me anymore. As I tried to figure it out, weeks and then months went by with my taking no physical exercise at all. From a combination of lack of exercise, the side effects of chemo and the aftermath of my mastectomies, my body was gradually weakening and stiffening, particularly in the area of my shoulders and chest. And the weakness and stiffness made it that much harder for me to motivate myself to get moving again.
As weeks and then months went by, my clothing began to, um, "shrink", and for the first time in my life, my doctor suggested that I peel off a few pounds. Since I was at a standstill with regard to exercise, I decided to focus on my eating habits instead. Unfortunately, chemo had put me into menopause, and my metabolism had slowed down considerably. Thus, it seemed that no matter how little I ate, I was still not losing weight. I knew that adding some muscle to my body would help fire up the "engine", but I was at a loss as to where to begin.
Then one Saturday afternoon, midway through my six months of chemo treatments, I was surfing the net and came across a "Hot Yoga" website. I recalled that my sister-in-law often practiced hot yoga and raved about how good it made her feel. I searched for a hot yoga class in my area, found one, and before I could talk myself out of it, I went that very day. I dressed in heavy sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, only to discover that everyone else was wearing short shorts and tank tops. The temperature in the heated room climbed well above 110 degrees, and after every few poses, I would roll up a sleeve or a pant-leg.
I was what you might call a "hot mess", but not at all in a good way.
There was a mirror at the front of the room, and we, the students, were instructed to focus on the sight of ourselves in the mirror. As pretzelly-difficult as the yoga poses were, as hella hot as that yoga room was, the greatest challenge I faced that day was forcing myself to stare at the bloated, flabby body that was supposedly a reflection of ... me. I hardly recognized myself.
And then there was the problem of my wig. It was just too hot to keep it on, despite how embarrassed I was at the prospect of removing it partway through the class (which I ended up doing).
Nevertheless, I stayed in the room and I kept at it. Why? Because despite my displeasure with looking in the mirror during class, and despite my difficulties with my wig and my clothing, yoga felt incredibly good to me. So good, in fact, that I willed myself to let go of my disgust over my image in the mirror.
Amazingly enough, it seemed that bald and fat didn't matter so much while I was bending.
Needless to say, and this is really no exaggeration, within one 90-minute session, I had already become hooked. I promised myself that I would attend class three times per week. However, as it turned out, three times per week never seemed to be enough to me: on many days that I had intended as "off" days from my yoga practice, I craved the practice and made my way to class anyway.
Within several months, I branched out to non-hot vinyasa yoga classes, classes that involved the linking of breath to movement and the connection of individual poses to one another through a series of specified movements. I learned to stand on my head, to balance on my forearms and even to balance on my hands. I learned to support my body weight between my hands and my feet while in a full backbend. It was heady and exciting, this forging of a new connection to my body: one of respect and love, rather than fear, anger and hatred.
Essentially, what I was doing in practicing yoga was beginning to reacquaint myself with my body the way a child gets to know his or her body, exploring the way it can move and stretch, the way it can curl up in on itself or open fully. I found that placing my body into certain postures made me feel powerful, joyful and even beautiful, even when I was bald, bloated and fatigued. I also found that certain postures made me burst into tears. Others made me feel angry and aggressive. I learned to deal with the emotions as they came up, and I learned to use the same techniques outside of the studio as well. In real life situations. Like waiting for a doctor to talk to me. Or having blood drawn from painfully collapsed veins.
Through yoga, I no longer regarded my body as alien, as something I had somehow become "trapped" in, against my will. And through connecting with my body, I began to see the connections in many things, in all things: between past and present, between actions and consequences, between arrogance and humility. And through those connections I am now able to see the connection between myself and all living beings, between all living beings and the space in which we dwell, and finally, the connection between all living beings and the divine force that we accept as more powerful than us even as we find ourselves unable to fully comprehend it.
I would never have wished to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. And given the choice, I would never go back and do it all over again. However, through the practice of yoga I have come to make peace with the fact that what I wish and what I want really have little, if anything, to do with what actually happens, and that what actually happens can become something beautiful even if it started out as something dark and frightening. To fight cancer is brave and noble. But to declare marshal law over one's body indefinitely is a heavy burden.
Through the practice of yoga, I have learned that it is possible to recognize the point at which the troops may be disbanded and the rebuilding can begin. Through the practice of yoga, I have learned that it is possible to grow a beautiful garden in what was at one time a battlefield.
As for Christina Applegate, whatever the reality of her diagnosis, prognosis and planned treatment, I have to believe that she too is in for a fight. Even if she knows she is going to win it. And my hope for her is that after the smoke clears, she can enjoy an indefinite period of detente.