learning to breathe again

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The Butterflies and Pebbles Instagram feed is the best.

Yesterday when I was at a local bakery, happily meeting a new friend and drinking tea, my phone rang. It was The BC Cancer people. I felt like yelling in the phone: STOP CALLING ME YOU CREEPS but then I remembered that I have cancer.

Over three months post diagnosis, I finally start radiation treatment on Friday at 8:15 am. They give you two days’ notice and it is at the worst possible time, as I have a kid to get to school for 8:50 am, but there was no negotiating with the person on the phone.  My whole life lately has been entirely at the mercy of booking clerks.

They (whoever ‘they’ are – I’m not even sure) dole out information into little tiny packages, only telling you the details of the very next step, which pushes you into even a more heightened state of anxiety because you don’t know what’s coming around the corner.  It turns people into wounded animals.

This makes it impossible to plan or even think about the future. Besides there is a version of the near future where I might be dead, so maybe it is best not to think about that anyhow. I suddenly understand the notion of living in the moment that everybody wiser than me keeps going on about.

At the therapist last week, I was jumping around topics like I was playing whack-a-mole and she finally said to me – after I spent 50 minutes splaying out my thoughts like machine gun bullets – why don’t you put both your feet on the ground and close your eyes? I did that and immediately I calmed down. We mutually decided that my one take-away task was to work on relaxation.

On Monday I nervously drove myself to a relaxation class at the cancer centre. Now being nervous going to a relaxation class is kind of stupid. But I there I was.

There were about seven people in the room, all women, who I presumed to be in treatment or post-treatment. It opened with a roundtable segment – the anticipation of which increased my wide-eyed nervousness. To my great relief, nobody introduced themselves by their diagnosis – instead we had to share an image that was calming to us. I didn’t have an image, but I did have an auditory memory: the sound of the croaking frogs outside our bedroom window that puts me to sleep when I go to bed, and then lulls me back to sleep when I wake up my typical five or six times during the night. (Thanks for the insomnia, Tamoxifen). The croaking frogs turn into singing birds when the sky lightens and even thinking about those sounds gives me a small zing of calm pleasure.

I was the only ‘new’ person in the room and many of the ladies seemed to know each other. I also felt young, which doesn’t happen very often anymore. I’d describe many of the women there as sad. I am sad too.

The facilitator was a social worker and had a lovely way about her. I didn’t have my little notebook out, so I can’t remember much she said, except this: we can trick our bodies into feeling calm by breathing. If we take nice deep breaths, our bodies feel we are calm, even if we are not. This makes sense to me. Don’t forget to breathe, silly.

Later, we laid down on mats and were covered by blankets by volunteers and the facilitator walked about, giving a guided meditation made up of all the images we had shared with her. Then, oh my god, the volunteers came around and touched our heads and feet in a most therapeutic way and man did that feel good. This might sound weird but it really was the best thing. I realize how little we touch each other in this world, especially in health care environments. Most touch in the hospital involves inflicting  pain and this gentle touch is the perfect antidote to that. I think more healing touch could help make hospitals more human again.  (I have so many ideas to make this whole cancer experience better for patients, but nobody has bothered to ask me my opinion).

Afterwards, everybody packed up the mattresses and pillows like after a yoga class and we met back in the circle. At this point, nobody had spoken to each other directly. One woman leaned over and said to me: I like your nail polish. I smiled at her generous olive branch, tears threatening to spill behind my eyes.

I was happily and calmly heading back home when three of the older ladies said to me, ‘we meet up for coffee afterwards. Do you want to join us?’ Sure, I’ll just go to the washroom first, I said, overly enthusiastically. I went into the washroom, locked myself in the stall, and cried like I was a little girl again.

These women all knew what it felt like to be the new person. They hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to feel scared all the time. I felt on-my-knees grateful for this kindness.

Later, in the cafeteria, I found out little pieces of their own stories and I shared a bit of mine. When I confessed I only had stage one breast cancer, one woman admonished me: you don’t ever only have cancer, she said. You have cancer and that’s always a serious thing. Then they said, ‘watch out or we will mother you!’ I blinked back tears and nodded, biting my lip, starting to break open again. Being cared for is the one exact thing that I so desperately need.

Tomorrow morning, I will be at the cancer centre, wearing a thin hospital gown. When I’m laying at the mercy of the radiation machine, as they line up the punishing rays with the tattoos on my poor beleaguered left breast, I will close my eyes, remember to breathe, surrender and draw upon the spirits of the kind women who have gone before me.

Cue the frogs, my friends.  Namaste.

One thought on “learning to breathe again

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