Bring it On

Sometimes life takes you on an unexpected path.

Sometimes life takes you on an unexpected path.

Just like the rest of us, Brandy’s life was going along just fine.  She was in a high stress job.  She was parenting her two daughters and stepson.  She and her husband were pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Then a friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer.  When Brandy asked her what she could do to help, her friend said, “Go to the doctor.  Get yourself checked.”  And so, after going to a new doctor, Brandy was surprised to learn that a family history of cancer on her dad’s side warranted a trip to a genetic counselor.  And then an oncologist.  And then a surgeon.  Through each step of the process, Brandy had one abiding thought that she repeated over and over:  Bring it on.

At first, the news came slowly.  Luckily, Brandy’s insurance covered the test for the BRCA gene.  BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can cause breast and ovarian cancers in women (and men) who have inherited a certain mutation in them.  Brandy tested positive for the gene (there are different types and different risk factors depending on the results) and found herself making some pretty heavy decisions in a very brief period of time.  Within 24 hours, Brandy made the choice to have a double mastectomy.  Even her naturopaths, a field which is often as odds with Western medicine, counseled her to have the surgery.  Brandy was scared, but she also felt empowered.  Unlike others before her, she had the information.  She had options.  And, of course, the one thing she was fiercely determined to keep.  She had her life.

Brandy and hubby enjoy a beautiful day together.

Brandy and hubby enjoy a beautiful day together.

The prep work was daunting.  Because Brandy’s gene carried a 96% chance of breast cancer, she had to get moving.  There were doctor’s appointments and tests after tests:  mammogram, MRI, plastic surgeon, general surgeon and even a psychologist to make sure she was mentally ready for what she was about to undertake.  And then, an ultrasound showed found a mass which kicked the whole process in high gear.  Her surgery was scheduled for April 19th, 2012.

In March, her mother in law brought Brandy a flier from the Vancouver Bikram hot yoga studio.  She knew Brandy wanted to be strong, healthy and ready for her surgery.  So Brandy went to her first class.  To her, it was “harder than childbirth!” She kept going. And going.  She felt “amazing.” She did the yoga every day leading up to her surgery, 30 days.  It prepared her in ways that she didn’t expect.  Exercise really is just the beginning, she says.  During her practice, she would visualize herself coming out of the surgery healthy and well.  With the yoga, she was able to manage her breath, take control of her mind, work through pain and learn how to calm herself.  When you get into it, she says, It can take you wherever you want to go.

After surgery, Brandy was focused on her next step:  reconstruction.  After mastectomy, this process can take years depending on how your body heals and reacts.  At a follow up appointment with her general surgeon, she found out that there had been 2 other masses on her chest wall.  The surgeon recommended radiation and chemotherapy.  Brandy felt blindsided.  She wanted to move on, not go back and expose herself to more toxins and invasive procedures.  Subsequent to many specialist consultations on what to do, the answers remained painfully elusive.  At the 11th hour, she made the brave decision to forego further treatment, to live as cleanly and presently as she could. Yoga, mindful living and breath, Brandy reasoned , will  keep me cancer-free.

June and July came with follow up surgeries for the reconstruction process.  The whole undertaking was painful and slow with an average 6 week wait until she could go back to yoga.  The surgeries and scar tissue also prevent full range of motion initially, so half moon pose with arms raised up over her head, was particularly difficult.  Instructors took the time to show her the pregnancy series which she used post surgery to help her avoid pain and ease her way back.  At about this time, Brandy began preparing for her next big surgery in October.  Her gene gives her about a 75% chance of ovarian cancer, so she took the tough step of removing those as well.  When ovaries are removed, the body plunges into menopause and estrogen ceases to flow at it’s usual rate, affecting bone density, mood, temperature, stamina among other things.

On October 31st, after dressing in costumes of doctors, nurses and patients, Brandy’s family escorted her to surgery.  She wasn’t allowed to go back to yoga until January 1st as her doctors feared the heat would exacerbate inflammation in her body.  Because her gene is estrogen receptor positive, the goal is to keep the estrogen in her body as low as possible.  This means she can’t take hormone replacement.   She relies on good nutrition, yoga and running to keep her weight down.  She takes supplements to help with other side effects of estrogen loss.  She limits caffeine and sugar. But, she says, she’s not perfect.  In this phase of her life, even while she has been through incredible trauma, she has given herself the gift of perspective.  Not so easy.

Brandy and her daughters.

Brandy and her daughters.

When asked if she was a spiritual person, Brandy pauses.  Of course, she says.  But this experience has changed how she sees the world.  She has become more open to other people, ideas and ways to be.  It has set her on a new spiritual path toward healing herself and those around her.  While she doesn’t see life the way she used to, she is eager to share her knowledge with others to help make a difference.  She and her daughters volunteer for Pink Lemonade, an organization set up by her plastic surgeon, Dr. Allen Gabriel.  She quit her high stress job and works in a place where she can feel less like she is on the “gerbil wheel.” She is training now for a half marathon.  She recently was featured in an article in the Columbian telling her story. Yearning for more in-depth yoga study, she attended teacher training this past year.

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In the end, Brandy describes the hot room as the pillar of her recovery.  It is the place she can go to slow herself down and get grounded.  It is the place where community embraces her.  It makes her feel more connected to the universe and is her gateway for healing and being present.  Most days, she says, she doesn’t give her experience much thought.  You can find her, just like you, sweating on her mat.  Everyone in the room has a story, she says, and hers is just one of many.  But if Brandy is near you, you can feel the energy of life flowing through her.  You can see it in her twinkling eyes and gorgeous smile.  You can hear it in the resolve of her words.  Maybe next time you see her in class, you can move next to her and get some.  Trust me, it’s good stuff.  Bring it on.

Life is precious.

Life is precious.  Just ask Brandy.

Photos of Brandy and family provided by the lovely Brandy herself.

Top and bottom photos by talented local photographer Barbara Paulsen.

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Yoga saved her. Literally.

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In case you didn’t know, the cervical spine is not a spot you want to injure.

Fellow yogini Cindy has always been a self described daredevil.  A sampling of her adventures includes rugby, skiing, snowboarding and diving to name a few.  She thrives on trying new things and being social, such as doing a mini-talk shows, production, promoting ski-wear and now helping students design yearbooks.  If you were a friend of Cindy’s, you would know her as positive, energetic, fun to be around and up for anything.  Cindy had been doing Bikram yoga for about a year when, on an outing with girlfriends, her adventurous spirit lead her to a life-altering moment.  Look out, Cindy.  Karma is coming.

A beautiful day on a boat with friends.  Laughter, water and time away from the grind of work.  A couple of her friends’ kids decide they want to jump off a 5 story precipice into the beckoning water.  Wanting to add cliff jumping to her resume, Cindy said “Let’s do it!” in her usual enthusiastic way.  Her 20’s something co-jumper showed her how to negotiate, feet first, into the water below.  However, when Cindy jumped, she took a little pre-jump up and subsequently ended up trying to right herself the entire way down.  She hit the water hard, and from such a height, water becomes less and less like water and more and more like ground.  By lucky coincidence, a firefighter was in a boat near her and saw her land.  Swiftly and expertly, he and a friend removed her from the water, stabilized her spine with a towel and called for assistance.  That assistance wound up being first an ambulance, then a helicopter when they realized the extent of her injuries.  When Cindy asked questions, being reasonably cognitively aware of what was happening, the answer was almost always the same.  “Because,” they responded, “this is serious.”

About the time the helicopter arrived, Cindy knew this was more than what she thought initially was whiplash.  Her arms and neck were tingly and she was breathing in a rapid and shallow way.  She thought to herself that she was in shock as she was transported to the nearest hospital.  In pain and confused, she was urged to go to Portland for emergency surgery.  Then everything went black.  She woke up after her first surgery at OHSU where they place a plate in through her neck, pulling aside her vocal cords in the process.  Three days later, another surgery from the rear of her neck to place the screws.  In a drug induced fog, Cindy remembers wondering, “Am I dead?   Am I dreaming?”  Neither.  Long hours of recovery at the hands of her loving husband and 15 year old son allowed Cindy, having broken her neck in August, back to the hot room in January.  Pretty amazing.

Cindy speaks appreciatively toward studio owner Erika, who put her membership on hold until she could return.  Cindy’s doctor asked her what she did to keep fit, and when she answered Bikram yoga, he said the strength she had developed in her spine may very well have saved her from being a quadriplegic.  Her return to yoga, however, felt far from triumphant.  Tears flowed, disguised in sweat, out of sheer frustration.  In an extraordinary show of resilience, Cindy continues to battle back, talking herself through postures she could once do with ease.  She has learned how to alternately push herself and back off when needed.  Her favorite postures have changed since the accident, as she understands her new body.  As she attempts patience with her healing, she forgoes deep back bends and breathes through the frustration.  Her favorite pose is standing bow:  both it’s beauty and it’s promise.  “Someday,” she tells herself as she gently works her way into the posture.  Always the competitor, though, she challenges herself, “Cindy, you are going to figure this out!”

Bikram yoga initially drew Cindy in as a way to support an aging (eek!) body.  Having played team sports all her life, she was compelled by the group mentality.  Spiritually, Cindy uses savasana as a sacred space to cultivate thanks.  For what? For being healthy, for having people who love her, for the universe and for all the good things in life.  For a firefighter ironically named “Cliff” who pulled her from the water.  Bikram yoga also serves her competitive nature, with it’s mirrors and it’s teachers (she sees them as coaches) always encouraging her to do more, go farther and be better.  She has seen others and herself do things she didn’t think were possible.  You can do it.  You can do it…

Sometimes, despite a remarkable road to recovery, Cindy still plays some “head games.”  She asks herself why she put herself at risk.  Was I stressed?  Did I have something to prove?  Regretful of the pain she caused herself and the people she loves, she questions.  She wonders.  Just like a true yogi.  But when she finds herself in that place, she goes back to her breathing.  Her positive nature shines through.  She remembers the biggest lesson that yoga has taught her:  You are more than you think you are.  You can do more than you think you can do.  The confidence she has gained continues to grow.  She resolves to live life fully, if not as a daredevil, as the person next to you on her mat.  Living the big life.

Thanks Cindy!

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