"When people would talk to me about, 'You're gonna beat this', or, 'You're gonna slay cancer,' or, 'You're gonna'— I would say what I'm gonna do, hopefully, is become more of who I was meant to be. And cancer has given me this huge, dramatic, turbulent opportunity to do that." — Eve Ensler
Through much of my young adult life, I struggled deeply with feelings of self-doubt. I learned early on how to silence my inner voice and define myself by other people’s opinions and standards. I believed that everything I felt or did was wrong; that I was unliked, unlovable, unworthy. Ultimately, my lack of self-compassion and my misperception of who I was prevented me from navigating the world with my own intuitive guidance.
Two years ago, shortly after celebrating my 28th birthday, I learned how existing in a disembodied self seriously impacted my health: In early February 2013, I was living in New York, but was headed to my hometown of Milwaukee for a follow-up visit with my doctor. Eight months before, I had found a lump in my breast, feeling within me that something just didn’t feel right. At the time, I was reassured by my doctor that because of my age and family history, the lump was not suspicious and that there was no need for any sort of testing.
But that February morning would prove to be very different. Feeling even more sure that something within me was awry, I got off the plane and drove straight to my doctor’s office for my appointment. This time, the doctor took one look at me and knew. After a short physical exam, I was immediately sent for testing. Then, following an emergency mammogram and ultrasound, I waited in the exam room for a biopsy, standing face-to-face with my mammogram image on the computer. What I saw fascinated me: There, on the screen, were two heart-shaped tumors mirroring one another in my left breast, over my heart. In that moment, it was as if the world stopped and a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. “You've known all along,” I thought. “You know. You know. You know.” Years of chronic stress and trauma had manifested into something that stopped me in my tracks, inviting me to look myself in the eye and say, “I see you. I trust you.” These tumors were no coincidence; they were messages from my body telling me that the time had come to listen to my heart.
I would learn before lunch that day that I had advanced stage Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a rare disease that accounts for only one to five percent of all breast cancers and is most common amongst women in their mid-fifties. On Valentine’s Day in 2013, I began seventeen months of treatment. Halfway through, I learned that I carry a P53 genetic mutation called “Li Fraumeni Syndrome,” an extremely rare mutation on my tumor suppressor gene that makes me highly susceptible to multiple cancers over a lifetime, and only affects 500 known families worldwide. In both instances, my case has puzzled medical professionals, as not one of my markers statistically aligns.
Only 1.8 percent of all breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women ages 20 to 34, and the numbers continue to significantly increase. The statistics are rare; the stories are not. I connected with other women my age, during and after my treatment, whose experiences were all too similar to my own, sharing one underlying commonality: Each woman intuitively felt that something wasn’t right and was dismissed by a doctor, only to eventually confirm what she had suspected all along.
While each of these stories is personal and different in its way, every woman experienced a challenge to her intuitive sense by someone in Western medicine. In the medical community, patients are most often treated with what is commonly referred to as a “standard care of practice” rather than in a way that addresses their unique bodies, minds and souls. Being a “rarity” in the Western medical landscape was at first extremely isolating, but I found—and continue to feel—a connection through the related stories of others.
The journey of turning inward continues to evolve through my yoga practice. Though yoga has been a part of my life for nearly ten years, how I came to be in my practice has changed significantly since my diagnosis. My intention is no longer to master my Asana practice, but to return to the heart of yoga—return to the heart of who I am, how I am, wherever I am. It has been a profound path to experiencing an intimacy with my body that I have never known, the chance to be undone without judgement.
On the days when my body was in its weakest physical state from chemotherapy side effects, or even when I was being wheeled into surgery, my yoga practice was simply about breathing; the breath was the one thing that continuously brought me back to present moment awareness, to myself at essence. When I was unable to lift my arms over my head after my mastectomy surgery, I marveled each day with gratitude at my body’s capability to move them just slightly more than the day before, imagining reaching for the sun just a little bit further each day. And on the days when I was terribly frightened, I talked to my cancer, sending it love and light, letting all of my cells know that we were in this together. It felt counterintuitive to “attack” or “fight” my cancer, for I had already been at war with myself for far too long.
These moments of recognizing the fragility of my body have reminded me that the practice of yoga is so much more than just Asana. It is a practice that is always accessible: an invitation to me to meet myself completely as I am, to honor the preciousness that is my body and surrender to the sweet space of acceptance and possibility. And, in these moments, I come to love myself so dearly again and again. I now believe that rarity is something to be celebrated and that by listening to one’s divine intuition, one can live wholly in the world. — Amelia Coffaro
--Amelia Coffaro. Amelia Coffaro, RYT-200, is a student of yoga, who is passionate about serving those interested in using yoga and Mindfulness as ways to manage, prevent and heal from disease or illness. She currently teaches a specialized yoga class designed to honor the needs of individual students exactly where they are in their cancer treatment and recovery and to encourage students to access the innate wisdom of their own bodies and make empowered choices for their health and healing. She dreams of a world where doctors and patients begin their appointments with five minutes of shared breathing practice. When she’s not teaching Yoga, Coffaro is dedicated to her photography. Her most recent work, Walk Through Cancer, has been published by NPR and Elle. Amelia was thrilled to lead her first yoga retreat, Inward, this summer at The Treehouse Retreats.