January 24th, 2018, The day I was told I had cancer, I was three weeks away from getting on a plane to go to Nicaragua and complete my yoga teacher training. I needed a physical to ensure I could safely stay on an isolated reserve far away from immediate medical help. My entire future lay ahead of me. I would finally have another way to support myself financially instead doing the music/serving shuffle, and I would have a job I could work around enough so we could finally try and have a family. I hadn’t been to the doctor in several years, I was seeing a naturopath instead and generally felt healthier mentally and physically than ever.
I had been training intensely because I knew that 30 day yoga training in another country would be extremely challenging. I’d been practicing in the studio twice a day and working full time as a server. I felt the candle burning at both ends, but it seemed like a normal burn. The last year or so had felt like never ending chaos. In 2016 my band released their first record, gigged endlessly and did an east/west coast radio tour. I got married, moved home from Toronto where I had lived with my Nana, and we lost D’Arcy, my husband’s best friend and a truly amazing man. In May of 2017, my husband and I purchased our first home and were in the middle of extensive renovations. We were living in one room, cooking on a hot plate and washing our dishes in the basement laundry sink. In July, the band went on a three-week European tour, and then we came back and drove to Saskatchewan for CCMA’s and another week of radio tours on the west coast before driving home. We released our single ‘Witness’ to radio, and filmed the music video in October, right before releasing our second record. I felt tired a lot, was having some pretty strange hip pain that neither my massage therapist or chiropractor could seem to identify, and occasional bouts of vomiting and diarrhea and some bleeding gums. It made sense that it was stress, nerves, anxiety, gingivitis. I had so much on my plate. Two months later I was staring down the barrel of a gun called cancer.
My family doctor told me to cancel my trip and immediately- My counts were so high I was at immediate risk of heart attack. Two weeks later I was told I had Chronic Myeloid leukaemia, a cancer once considered a death sentence that was now extremely treatable with daily Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors. I had cancer, but I could still live a normal life (or so I was told). I was relieved, but devastated. I had missed the trip of a lifetime, and treatment would be required for the rest of my life; pregnancy would not be an option. Because of the advanced state of disease, we could not delay treatment to save my eggs. I would never be the mother I had imagined in my head. I never stepped back inside a yoga studio.
The emotions I felt about yoga, my diagnosis and my devastation were extremely complicated and even I didn’t understand why I could not return to my mat. Yoga had literally saved my life- twice. It had pulled me out of the grips of deep depression and a severe eating disorder, and then delivered me right to my doctors door when I needed medical intervention most. If I had stepped on that plane I probably would have died in Nicaragua. But for some reason, I did not feel gratitude for it. The feeling, of being robbed of what felt like my entire planned future felt like never ending gut punches. I would not be a mother. I would not be a teacher. I had worked so hard to become one, to save the money for the trip, to create a new reality for myself and I had been robbed of that. I hated yoga as much as I hated my cancer. I would burst into tears at the mere thought of a single posture. I hated the memory of the heat, the breath, the connection to myself. I stripped it all away. I no longer wanted to be connected to myself- my body. It had betrayed me. I had spent months staring myself down in the mirror, perfecting postures and poses; learning to look at my self and my body lovingly and let go of self judgement. I had learned the importance of practice, persistence, dedication. I watched my growth with love and excitement. Yet underneath my body had been slowly dying, and hiding it all from me. How could I look at it- me, anymore?
The chaos of my life suddenly revolved around treating my CML. I took a couple weeks off work to get used to the side effects of the drugs, and then was ready to get back to work. The girls in the band worked really hard with me to keep things moving. We planned future single releases and videos, we kept playing gigs and really tried to act like everything was going to be fine, because we all thought it would be. My cancer had other plans, however. The treatments weren’t working for me. My body wouldn’t respond appropriately to the drugs- instead the drugs were putting me at risk of dying faster than my cancer- and it wasn’t even touching my cancer. I needed a bone marrow transplant to survive, or I would only live a couple of years.
Over the next two years it felt like living in a hospital was my job. I had a bone marrow transplant which resulted in acute, and then chronic graft versus host disease (GVHD) of the eyes, mouth, guts, genital tract and liver. It felt like every time we got one area to calm down, it would pop up elsewhere. I lost most of my teeth from GVHD. I gained a hundred pounds, got high blood pressure, serious fluid retention and avascular necrosis of the hips and shoulders from high dose steroid treatment. I contracted C. Diff, Cellulitis, and chronic sinusitis. I got a blood clot, collapsed nasal valve, an EBV infection, and then a CMV infection- which reoccurred NINE times, so many that the virus became double drug resistant, requiring me to use a trial drug to save my life. I had a serious fall resulting in a huge laceration which became infected and turned into a massive hematoma so large it cut off circulation to my foot. I almost lost my leg. I developed guillain-barre, had to learn how to walk and write again. I lost the 100 pounds I gained. The combination of post transplant drug protocol and the nephro-toxic treatments for CMV caused 90% scarring to my kidneys resulting in Stage 4 kidney disease, with a 20-40 percent chance for dialysis/transplant in the next 2-5 years, and a 100% certainty of it in my lifetime.
I saw stranger in the mirror for the last two years. I lost all my hair. Most of my teeth. I struggled with my self-identity and self-confidence. Gaining a hundred pounds was extremely emotionally challenging for me as an eating disorder survivor. I watched myself blow up, skin ripping at the seams like a balloon about to burst. I cried to my therapist that I would never be pretty again, knowing how vain it sounded, but not really caring anymore. I had lost everything. Couldn’t I at least stay skinny? Then I watched it all fade away- as I slowly starved. No appetite, no teeth. Unable to eat, unable to digest food properly. My body was hurting, and I could feel it failing. I kept complaining to my doctors, but they seemed less worried and more relieved that I was losing the weight- even faster than I had gained it. Every mirror glance was a new stranger. I started avoiding mirrors. I probably looked awful anyways.
Learning to walk again after Guillain Barre has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done- and I had to do it with a broken hip from necrosis, because they wouldn’t replace my hip in the middle of the pandemic. When I came home from rehab I was still in a wheelchair and minimally mobile. Over the next couple months my body started to move a bit better and I moved to a walker. I started attending Neuro-physio for gait correction. I could feel my body screaming out for movement but my muscle wasting, fatigue, and hip pain made it very hard to move. We considered getting a therapy pool, as public rec therapy centres are closed due to Covid, but it just didn’t seem like a feasible idea for us.
What does this all have to do with yoga? Trust me, I’m getting there.
The reason I even got into yoga in the first place was through my best friend Emily, who is a yoga teacher, and amazing human being. About a decade ago, we both served at the same place, and had similar issues with body confidence. She convinced me to come to a class with her, and I honestly thought I was going to die and that everyone in the room was freaking insane for doing this sh** to themselves. I laid on my mat almost the whole class just trying not to pass out while I adjusted to the heat. I probably wouldn’t have gone back if it weren’t for her. She didn’t judge me. She told me that yoga isn’t about judgement, or perfection. It’s about personal improvement, connection and dedication. Setting goals for yourself and working towards them. It’s about literally watching your progress in a mirror, class to class, and about forgiving yourself when you have a class where you need to spend most of the time in Shavasana. I gave it a couple more classes, and I was hooked. I loved the heat, I loved the simplicity, and most of all, I loved the forgiveness. The loving kindness that you show your body through the practice. I loved the meditations, the mantras, and the mirrors. for years I had been masking myself with a face of perfection to the entertainment world, but in the hot room I had to stare down the real me- the me that I loathed. The me that was unregulated, confused, hurt, and carrying decades of little kid baggage that I just couldn’t carry anymore. I found my identity, looking into my own eyes day after day, in those mirrors. Then I lost it again to cancer.
Emily had tried to get me to attend a restorative practice or two throughout my cancer experience but understood that my feelings about yoga were intense and complicated, so I declined every invitation and told her I would let her know when I was ready again. She gave me that space and I appreciated it so much- but she also knew when it was time for me to step out of that space and give me a push back to something that had once been life transforming for me. After I moved home from rehab, Emily conspired with my husband who is an HVAC tech, to turn an unused space in our basement to a small home hot yoga studio. When he first told me about it, I wasn’t overly excited but could tell he was excited to try and help me get my life back, some way, some how- so I agreed. Over the next two months my husband faithfully toiled away in the basement, while I continued my physio so that I could even get DOWN the stairs. I had to admit I was slowly growing fond of the idea, even a bit excited to try and do something with my body other than lay in a bed or sit in a chair. In physio we practiced methods to get down on the ground to do ground postures, and how to get back up with a chair or my walker. We got a video yoga subscription, a barre for standing support, and special comfy blocks and bolsters.
After Bill finished the room, it went unused for a few days. One night, I was going through a rough patch and told him how much I was struggling with a lot of things; How I was still struggling to get back to myself, my happiness, and especially, onto the mat.
He said, “I’m struggling too. This has been hard for me too. I really want for us to use this room. I really want to use this room. Will you maybe just come and sit in the room with me?”
My heart melted. This wonderful man who had stood by me through so much, and had built me a literal hot yoga studio in my house just wanted me to sit in the room with him. So I did.
I worked my way down the stairs, into the room, and onto a mat. We tried a short stretching class and then a meditation. I didn’t die, and I didn’t have a break down. He let his fingers caress mine during some postures, and held my hand during the meditation. I felt safe. I felt happy.
I let myself start from the beginning- I knew I had to let go of my expectations or I would only get frustrated. I tried to return to the mindset of yoga- to love myself, to give myself space and time, to always be a student. I told myself to just always- TRY! Over the next couple days we tried different kinds of short classes together, relearning postures, and taking it slow so I could develop special modifications for my hip. Some things were very hard in the beginning because I still don’t have a lot of feeling in my feet, especially toes, so I had to learn to trust that, even when I can’t feel them- the strength is there and I can trust in that. I felt my heart open each time my back or toes touched the mat. My body felt like it was singing with joy, like parts of it were lighting up that had been dark for ages. I forced myself to look in the mirror. To accept the changes, the weakness, the stretch marks, the curly hair, saggy breasts and to just love it anyways. Having my husband beside me also learning, trying, made it so much easier for me to let go of my fear and irrational emotions about yoga that had been caught up in the crossfires of cancer. In a couple days I was able to get up and down off the ground with no chair. I moved from a walker to a cane. Then I developed a way to do standing routines upside down using an inversion tool so that I could work my legs while the hip sat in the socket properly. Each time I tried to do something I thought I wouldn’t be able to do, I found a way to do it. Even if it needed excessive modifications, I had to start somewhere. Each day my body amazed me and I could feel my anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal towards it beginning to fade.
As I stretch, roll and reach my way into recovery, I wanted to write this as a reminder that yoga is accessible for all. While I may have a hot room, it is certainly not necessary. Yoga can be done anywhere- including bed! It’s ok to not know where to start, or to be overwhelmed by the yoga videos you see online. They are advanced teachers! There is literally no wrong way to do yoga (unless it is hurting you then you might be doing something wrong). It is not about being the best, it is about being your best, and I think as a society we get very attached to the notion of what health and exercise should look like and yoga tends to get a bad rap. There is SO much more to yoga than postures that look hella complicated for most people. It’s about the breath, tapping into it and controlling it during times of pressure and stress; learning to control your response. It’s about slow and strong movement, doing what you can do to the best of your limits and abilities. Connecting to your inner voice, or your inner ‘Becky’, and replacing those negative thoughts with positive powerful mantras to fuel you. It’s about trying, learning, and accepting where you are right now, in this moment, but also working diligently towards the next moment. It is a true builder of self-awareness, forgiveness and understanding. I needed a break from yoga, because I just couldn’t disconnect my feelings about it from my feelings about cancer. That’s OK. It’s what my body needed. But now that I am ready to reconnect- it feels exciting and thrilling and I feel joy beginning to build in my heart that had been pretty bleak for some time now.
Thank you Bill, Emily and the Universe. I love you.