On February 14 (Valentine’s Day), I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) breast cancer after going for my routine mammogram. To say that I was in shock was an understatement. My brain went down the “what if” rabbit hole in every direction, but I was resolved to “deal with it” even if that meant a bilateral mastectomy, radiation, chemo, or whatever. Both of my grandmothers overcame breast cancer and lived to be 99 and 101 years old, so I decided that my story would be no different. To further motivate me, my husband had lost his first wife to ovarian cancer back in 2013, leaving him and their two daughters behind. That gave me even more reason to have a victory story, and a story of overcoming, like my grandmothers before me.
Because of the size and the dispersement pattern of the DCIS, the doctor told me he was going to be unable to spare my left breast and it was likely that he would not be able to spare my left nipple either. I opted to do a bilateral mastectomy (with reconstruction) to rule out the possibility of ever having to deal with breast cancer (or mammograms) again. I felt convicted about my decision and started looking for breast tattoos to cover my former nipple area and my left breast (more on that later).
My surgery was on March 15, just two days before St. Patty’s day (which also happens to be the anniversary of our first date). Right before surgery, my doctor told me he thought he would be able to spare my left nipple. I was so relieved, as you can imagine! The surgery was supposed to take about 3 1/2 hours but only took 2 1/2 due to the skill and precision of my amazing surgeons. My nipple was spared and everything went off without a hitch. Victory #1.
After my pathology came back, I had a follow up appointment with my doctor. He shared with me that the cancer was not HER-2 positive, it was not invasive, and it had not spread to my lymph nodes. Because of that, I would not need radiation or chemo therapy. Victories #2, 3, 4, and 5. But, there was something else my doctor told me. He said, “you’re very lucky to have opted to do a bilateral mastectomy, young lady.” As it turned out, my pathology on the right breast indicated that I had an ADH (atypical ductal hyperplasia) a precancerous situation which had a high likelihood of becoming cancer later. As he put it, “we would have been dealing with cancer on the right in a matter of time.”
To say that I KNEW I was supposed to have the right breast removed was an understatement. Every fiber of my being felt resolved, and to find out that I had a pre-cancerous condition on the right only affirmed that. Victory #6. I went and saw the oncologist upon the request of the doctor to confirm what he suspected and she agreed that no radiation or chemo would be needed. They got it early and they got it all. I would just need to go for ultrasounds and blood testing every 6 months. Victory #7. A few weeks later, my genetic testing came back negative, which meant I wouldn’t need to worry about the possibility of developing other female cancers. Victory #8. A few weeks ago, I went for my 6 month follow up ultrasound and blood testing. I was told that I am CANCER FREE and that we will just keep monitoring things from this point forward! Victory #9.
The story I shared so far is clearly a victory story. A story of overcoming breast cancer. But the REAL victory is not revealed in those details. Of all of the victories I had throughout my journey with breast cancer, the greatest was the victory I had in my SOUL. At first, I wanted to run away and hide. I battled with fear. I held it in, determined not to let anyone see it. Then, I went to war with my own flesh, and decided I was going to “kick cancer’s ass.” I vacillated in these two realms – kicking ass, and running and hiding. Fight or flight. As a yoga instructor and yoga therapist, I KNEW that my body could not heal in a state of fight or flight. I also knew that “whatever we resist persists” – that resistance creates more resistance. And, I knew that whatever we focus on expands, and that by focusing on my cancer, I was only giving it more power. But, I didn’t know how to end the struggle.
One day, after one of my yoga classes, a dear friend and one of my first yoga students (who is a three-time cancer survivor) said to me, “Love your cancer, Dawn.” It was like the heavens opened up to deliver me a message and it changed EVERYTHING. Because love changes everything. I had an ah-ha moment that changed me from the inside-out and changed the way I felt about my cancer. I started looking for opportunities to be grateful, and let me tell you, there were more than I could recount here! I started asking the cancer what it had to teach me, knowing that pain can be one of our greatest teachers if we allow it to be. I decided to love my cancer and love myself through it.
I starting looking for a tattoo that would help me seal this experience in my flesh. (Don’t judge!) I Googled “pink” and “Phoenix Rising” and found this on Pinterest.
The Phoenix Rising has always been a “spirit animal” of mine because of what it represents. Refiner’s fire. Beauty from ashes. Overcoming and victory over fear and death. Rising above. Rebirth and regeneration. Transformation. My faith in Jesus. The color pink represents my journey with cancer and honors my grandmothers who were also victorious. I want to have something like this over my heart (where my breast cancer was found) as a permanent reminder of my journey and who I want to be when I face future trials, pain, loss, or anything that feels like “fire”. I want it as a reminder to thank God for all that all that I am, all of my blessings, and all of the “second chances” I have been given. It is a symbol of this new life I have been given. And that, my friends, is the biggest victory of them all.
The fact of the matter is that each of us will go through various forms of “fire” during our lifetimes. We can choose whether we are going to be victims and go up in flames, or to persevere and come out the other side as a stronger, wiser, more beautiful version of ourselves. We can in fact embrace the death of the “old self” and resurrect as a new creation.
We can all choose to be the Phoenix Rising. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to be victorious. We can allow the fire to transform us, and reveal our inner essence, strength, and beauty. We can look for the beauty amidst the ash – hidden blessings, opportunities to be grateful, the small and large victories. We can love our “cancers” and in loving them, we can heal. And, we can begin again.
The choice is ours to make. And, that choice changes EVERYTHING.