Balancing in the Midst of Cancer

Christine is a psychologist and teaches cycle & pilates at UpCycle. She loves her mom with all her heart.

Four years ago, my mom had a hysterectomy. She had some abdominal pain and some test results came back unusual. And while I knew that it could be something serious, nothing could have prepared me for the doctor saying, “Your mother has ovarian cancer.”

My world stopped in that moment. I wanted to scream back, “You are wrong. My mom is 56. She doesn’t smoke. Eats healthy. She’s at the gym everyday. You have the wrong patient.”

But as I looked around and saw my dad and brother crying, I realized he, in fact, had the right patient.

I call my mom “Mighty Mouse” because she’s all of 5 feet but is one of the most active and strong women I know. As a child I saw her as all-knowing, strong, brave, a true warrior. But as I watched her sleep in the recovery room, she suddenly looked so small, so tiny, and I knew that our roles were going to reverse—where I would become the mother to her as she fought the battle of her life.

When her eyes fluttered open she groggily asked me if she had cancer. I didn’t know how to respond and wanted to shield her from the awareness of the fight ahead. So instead, I smoothed her hair and said, “The surgery went well, Mama. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” With a look of resignation and knowingness, she whispered back, “I have cancer.” And she fell back asleep.

***

Four years later and my mom still is fighting. She has been through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, liver abalations, clinical trials, and more rounds of targeted therapy than we can count. She lives in Texas and last month, when we learned her cancer had spread, I flew down to be with her and my family.

While I was there, my brother invited me to go to a Summer Solstice "Yoga in the Park" class hosted by Surya Yoga where we were to do 108 Sun Salutations in the 108-degree Texas heat. I agreed, knowing that it would be good for me to get a workout in and to be outside, but nothing prepared me for the experience that I had.

Disclaimer: I’m not a yogi. Like at all. I pretty much cycle, run, or do things at a pace that keeps me from slowing down and reflecting.

As we completed the first salutation, I thought, “Easy peasy, I got this.” But as we passed the 20th... repeating the same movements, with the same breath sequence, as a group, my mind began to process the heartbreaking realities and challenges that my family faced.

My brother and I

My brother and I

There were sets when my movement felt beautifully connected with my breath, when I felt like I could keep going indefinitely with the series. Much like the days where I felt things were going to be OK for my family, that my mom was going to get through this, that we were strong and could keep marching forward.

And then a thought would cross my mind, or the sunlight would change, or I would notice the sweat beading on my brow and I would be snapped into the throws of losing my mom, and I would lose my balance. I would think “I can’t keep going with this. It’s too hot. I want to scream because the world keeps going while mine feels like it is ending.” And much like life, on those days when my heart hurts so much, I had to stop and lay down on my mat and take a breath as the tears fell from my eyes. As I watched the clouds above and visualized my mother’s love and spirit, I told myself that it was OK to feel these things. That I had to feel these feelings, as painful as they were.

And as I let myself experience these emotions and recall memories of my mother (her helping me bake cookies as a kid, staying with me for 2 weeks when I was in grad school and stressed beyond my limits, or walking me down the aisle when I got married), I knew that no matter what lie ahead, her spirit, her kindness, her love would always reside within me, and that I would carry those qualities no matter what the future held. And in that moment, I could settle in and rise up to continue on in the journey of 108 sun salutations and walking this walk with my mom.

I had to take many of those breaks throughout that hour and a half—riding the waves of  comfort and grief. And what I learned in that 90 minutes was that by giving myself the time to experience my emotions, my movement, and my breath, I was working through and accepting both the sorrow and the beauty of my mother’s journey.

I know that I’m not unique. Many of you have been touched by cancer, by heartache, by the feeling that your world is crashing down. All of us fight secret battles. We put on shiny happy faces and respond “Great!” when someone asks how we are doing. And to some extent that’s good—fake it until you make it, right? But in other ways it keeps us disconnected from our ability to process, to work though, and to share our heartache, and ultimately, connect with others. What I learned that day on the mat is that by slowing down I was able to reflect and process my grief and hurt, my triumphs and challenges with a community of beautiful people all moving together who were very likely working through their own struggles. And in that moment, I didn’t feel so alone anymore.

Left to right: Me, my brother, my husband and my mom

Left to right: Me, my brother, my husband and my mom