Changed but not broken

My Mom bought me this beautiful figurine two years ago when I was sick during chemotherapy because she knows I love fairies. If you look closely you can see that one wing has a crack across it at the upper aspect. She apologized that it was broken, but I honestly thought that it was, in fact, perfect for me. I was feeling a little broken at the time; bald, sick, and knowing that I had a bunch of surgery ahead of me that would leave my body scarred and not quite the same. A little like a fairy with a broken wing.
Interestingly, a few months ago I realized that I have a partially “winged” scapula on the right side, which was the side of my cancer. It turns out this is a potential side effect of mastectomy and axillary node dissection, in which a nerve is damaged that controls a muscle called the serratus anterior, connecting the side ribs to the underside of the scapula (or shoulderblade). The result is that the scapula doesn’t move properly, and in some positions it protrudes like a wing off of your back. Some people have significant pain in the shoulder and upper back as a result of the dysfunction of these muscles and the scapula. I am lucky in that mine is not as dramatic as some people’s. And clearly many women have other complications much worse than this.
This serratus anterior paralysis is likely permanent for me, since it is still present nearly 2 years after surgery. But this is just one of many examples of a situation in which yoga has helped me in my recovery. Not only do the asanas themselves help me to strengthen surrounding muscles, so I am as little affected as possible. But the body awareness that we learn from practicing asana makes me much more aware of what is going on in my body so I can do more to try to keep the area in proper alignment. I have been fortunate enough to have very little pain associated with it, and I think that is thanks to yoga. Finally, focus on my favorite of the niyamas (part of the 8 limbs of yoga), santosha, or contentment, helps me to remain content despite all conditions. A deep, and abiding sense of contentment keeps me from feeling frustrated or upset about anything that happened as a result of my cancer treatment. Instead, I feel grateful that I am able to do what I can do, and I find the changes in my body are just a new challenge that gives me different things to focus on in my practice.
With santosha in my heart, I look at my little fairy, and now I think I am not broken at all, but instead just beautifully changed. Thank you, to yoga, for that.

May I live like the lotus, at ease in muddy water

This is a photograph of me working on my handstand in front of the beautiful mural at davannayoga (where I trained, still practice, and now lead a few yoga classes) in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It is an amazing yoga shala, if anyone is looking for a place to pursue some formal yoga training. I HIGHLY recommend it.

Anyway, I love this photograph for a number of reasons. First, the mural is just so breathtaking. It is funny how many traveling students come through the shala and want to take a photograph of it.  It was painted on the wall there by another one of davannayoga’s teachers, who is a beautiful soul and a very talented friend. The mural depicts the 8 limbs of yoga, as originally described in the seminal text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I’ll talk more about the 8 limbs in other posts, and in some videos once I get them uploaded. But I love the mural, as it so beautifully arranges the different components of the 8 limbs of yoga, making them easy to visualize and study. As I suspect is true for many, there are certain limbs (or parts of limbs, such as individual components of the yamas or niyamas) that are easier for me to contemplate, or that resonate with me more strongly than others. The mural serves as a good reminder of the other limbs, and helps me remember to study and focus on each of them.

I also love that it utilizes the lotus flower theme, which is one of my favorite images. As you probably know, the lotus flower is an aquatic plant native to India and other tropical locales, and is referred to commonly as a symbol of purity, beauty, and growth or transformation in many religious and spiritual traditions. To me, the image of a lotus flower growing up through murky water, to rise above the surface and blossom into these beautiful, colorful flowers, couldn’t be a more perfect symbol for navigating the breast cancer experience. Just as the muddy pond is dark, ugly, dirty, and difficult to traverse, so too, can be the treatment for our cancer. However, like the muddy water, which provides needed nutrients to feed the lotus seedling on its path toward the surface and toward its blossoming, so too can our difficult experiences in treatment provide fodder for growth and evolution, if we allow them to. “Grist for the Mill”, as Ram Dass calls it in his beautiful book of the same name. While I’m not saying I enjoyed chemotherapy, or the ongoing crummy consequences of surgery or radiation, I do truly believe that those difficult experiences made me a better person. I know it sounds corny, but I learned big lessons in patience, in humility, in acceptance, and in surrender (among many others that I will surely come back to in other posts) that have made me a happier, more content, more compassionate human being. While in no way have I arisen from this cancer experience a perfect, pure, beautiful flower, I do think I transformed in some very positive ways.

Finally, that leads me to the handstand in the photo. While it is in no way perfect, and I can’t hold it for very long, nor do any other fancy shapes while holding it, I am proud of and grateful for the progress I have made. Obviously, handstanding isn’t the goal of yoga and isn’t, in and of itself, going to make anyone happy or a better person, but I have seen it as a challenge I wanted to tackle for a long time. I started working toward handstand a couple of years before I had breast cancer, but of course treatment affected my progress while I was sick and weak on chemotherapy, then while I was recovering from surgery and not allowed to put weight into my arms, and now dealing with imbalances in strength and flexibility in my shoulders relating to my treatment.  But much like everything in yoga, I realized that the good stuff isn’t in the final product or the accomplishing of some perfect goal, but rather in everything you learn on the way there. So all of that falling out, crashing to the floor, rolling over, getting back up and trying again, learning new ways to improve my balance or my alignment…. all of those things are just more grist for the mill. They taught me important lessons like patience, humility, persistence, and that I can, with enough effort, eventually accomplish things that at one time seemed impossible. I don’t expect to ever be able to scorpion handstand (bending back and touching feet to the top of your head while balancing in handstand) like some of the famous instagram yogis that I follow. But who knows? In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the journey.

As they say, the jewel is in the lotus. Thanks for joining me along the way.

About Us

Leona grew up in a small town in Indiana, and was interested in medicine from a young age. She went to medical school at Indiana University School of Medicine, and then completed both her internal medicine residency and medical oncology fellowship at the University of Arizona. She then joined the faculty of the University of Arizona, Arizona Cancer Center, where she specialized in the treatment of breast cancer and worked in breast cancer clinical trials. She then joined a private practice group in Tucson, Arizona to bring specialized breast cancer care to the community practice setting. She loved the practice of oncology, and was passionate about her 10+ year career helping women (and a few men) through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. But she decided she needed to make a change in her own life, and retired to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 2015, in order to slow down and simplify life, hoping to take better care of herself, have more time for yoga, healthy eating, gardening and other activities. See our post “Our back story” to hear about the ironic turn of events that happened next!

Aside from her interest in yoga and breast cancer, Leona enjoys spending time with her husband, relaxing on the beach, exploring all of the beauty and charm in Mexico, loves all animals- especially cats, and looks forward to visits from her family.

Our back story

It felt like the most ironic turn of events of all time when I found out I had a stage 3a breast cancer. As a medical oncologist, who had specialized in the treatment of breast cancer for more than 10 years, I knew that breast cancer could affect anyone. But somehow I thought, in some cosmic way, that it wouldn’t affect me. I mean, I had dedicated so much of my life to helping women fight this disease, I couldn’t possibly also get the disease, right? Wrong. At age 40, a large tumor developed in my breast and spread to local lymph nodes, and aggressive chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation ensued.

I had been an active yoga practitioner for 7-8 years before breast cancer, and had known that it helped me with many things (chronic back pain resolved, I felt more energy, stress eased, muscles toned). And I had always thought yoga would be helpful to my patients, for complaints like weight gain or anxiety, which commonly accompany breast cancer treatment. But I had no idea the depth or the breadth of the benefit that yoga could have for a breast cancer patient until I went through it myself. I truly believe that yoga (including much more than asana alone) got me through my cancer treatment and helped me recover to a place where I feel much stronger, healthier, and happier than I was before I had cancer. It is easy to think that cancer has to change us for the worse, like we will have physical limitations, weaknesses, or vulnerabilities as a result of the disease and the treatment. But yoga has taught me that with the proper perspective and approach, a breast cancer diagnosis (which seems so scary and horrible) can actually turn into a wonderful opportunity for growth and optimization of health in body, mind, and spirit. Your “new normal” can be the best version of you yet!

Study of the yamas and the niyamas helped me get my mind right, in the way that I thought about my situation during and after my cancer treatment. For example, focusing on santosha helped me find contentment instead of frustration with feeling sick during chemo or when the result of my breast reconstruction wasn’t perfect. Svadhyaya, or self-study, helped me to think about what I was learning through the experience, like patience or humility or how to ask for help. Asana practice was huge in restoring my range of motion after bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, and radiation left my chest wall and shoulders very stiff and sore. Losing my yoga practice was one of my biggest fears, and a slow and steady return to asana allowed me to prove to myself that I could get back to full strength and activity, which was so empowering. Pranayama calmed my mind when I felt fear about the potential long term outcome of my cancer, or when I was going crazy anxiously awaiting test results. And mantra meditation literally took chemotherapy-induced abdominal pain away, getting me through some very tough days on the couch. I have since learned more about the underlying mechanisms by which yoga achieves some of these things, now coming to light through scientific research. There is fascinating research showing that yoga has anti-inflammatory effects in the body, and does amazing things like shift the balance of our nervous system toward rest and healing, and away from conditions of chronic stress.

In these ways and more, yoga can support us through the breast cancer experience, helping us connect to our true selves, to a place of peace, of gratitude for every day – including the tough ones, and of reverence for the beauty that is this life. I hope to help others examine how yoga might benefit them in their journeys. This site will hopefully allow me to reach anyone who is interested in learning more.