Written by Bernadette Mitchell
At age 35, I was smothering myself with life and I didn’t even know it — climbing the corporate ladder, traveling nationwide every week for business, mothering a young son and daughter.
Everything I did revolved around marriage, family and career. I was out of balance, never stopping long enough to ask myself how to change — until I went for my annual physical and my gynecologist announced, “I feel a lump. I’m confident it’s nothing, but get a mammogram and let’s look at it.”
Within 10 days the Stage 2 mass had been removed and my cancer vocabulary was the only thing thriving in my life. I stayed away from anything negative, such as the Internet and people with advice, and focused only on the positives, such as love, routine, comforting conversations with my husband, Geoff, and anything resembling normalcy.
“Cancer” is a dirty word. When it strikes, there’s no choice but to strike back. It put my life on hold and I realized I truly could never go home again, never return to my old ways. How could life be the same?
I need only to hear the word “chemo” to relive the feeling of that cold poisonous rush filling my veins and to revisit the hope that the chemicals would cure and the nasty metallic taste would go away.
But the worst times also helped me value the best times that were ahead. My terrors were alleviated by my family. The prospect of losing my hair, for instance, shocked and scared me.
My terror turned to thoughts of worry. I worried about public speaking. Would the audience know I was wearing a wig? What would the neighbors say? How could I work out? Was I vain? Mostly, though, I struggled with how to tell my children without upsetting them or having them obsess about their mother dying.
Then one day I just told them: “The medicine Mommy is taking to help her get better is going to make Mommy’s hair fall out. But don’t worry, it will grow back.”
My son William, then 3, said, “OK. That’s OK, Mommy. What’s for dessert?”
When we gathered with friends and family right after my first chemo treatment, I barely mustered the energy to socialize as I fought back nausea and fatigue. Suddenly, William charged into the room with my new $3,000 wig draped backwards on his head, looking for all the world like John Lennon in the ’60s, and screaming with joy.
The room went silent as everyone turned to glimpse my reaction. In unison we all laughed and laughed until we cried.
Nobody could put a moment in perspective like children, and not only mine. All chemo treatments are administered in a communal, nonprivate area where one day I was awestruck to see a 9-year-old girl wearing a wig and a smile as she received treatments. To this day I can’t get her face out of my mind.
Geoff accompanied me to endless appointments, operations and treatments where we played backgammon, our chief distraction. No matter what we discussed, we drifted to the topic of what we’d do in the future. I was uber-lucky to have so much support.
I still feel lucky. I’m grateful to be able to watch my children grow up, have a soul mate as a partner for more than 20 years and see our daughter, Chloe, enter college. Those were milestones I’d only hoped to attain.
Life after cancer was my birth into yoga. For more than 25 years I’ve worked as an officer of a Fortune Global 500 firm. Today I enjoy my career, but I love teaching yoga, where I find inspiration and balance. I love helping others deal with the stress that may make them vulnerable to cancer.
Often I think about those who are not as lucky — people we’ve lost, people soon to be afflicted. I teach yoga simply because I feel so lucky that I can.