A bounty of generous resources from our dance community and the San Francisco Bay Area is how I found my way through a return of breast cancer and the death of my mother a few weeks before the mastectomy of my right breast. A list of resources that support healing, and living with cancer, is provided at the end of this article.
Part One: Mortality Meets with Performance
I never imagined navigating a life threatening illness while being in that very vulnerable state called performance. Yet there I was, performing with a blessed community of nine performers in January 2012 at The Garage. I had just learned from my yearly mammogram that the cancer has likely returned. The only way I can brave this performance is to keep the cancer secret. I just can’t handle both at once. If someone offered me sympathy I would simply fall apart.
In my heightened state we gather with our composer, lighting designer and stage manager the night before the first performance to make the nine haikus into one dance, Ancestors Speak. I realize the gift for me is experiencing the ties of shared care and creativity. This sharing provides the knowledge that I am not alone.
I fall flat on my face… literally, after the first performance. I am crossing a street and stumble. Never having a chance to put out my hands I end up kissing the rocky asphalt. Obviously I am more scared than I have been able to admit. Scars on my face and vulnerability ten fold I pray that I can perform the second night. Several of the performers from Ancestors Speak sit on stage holding the space for me through my solo, Bare Bones Crow. As I end all the performers surrounds me as I say, “YES”! … to this landslide of darkness. They do not realize the blessing and shelter they provide.
By February the cancer is certain. I am unable to face letting people know. This is when I first ask for help. Kind friends form a phone tree and email to tell family and friends. I create a list and in so doing I realize the gift I have of friends and family.
With cancer no longer a secret I am honored to perform a solo created by Ruth Botchan at the end of February. Consulting Summer’s Clock is based on a poem by Emily Dickenson, about the realization of being halfway through one’s life. However, I am so aware that the end of life is an unknown that this becomes the theme for my performance. I am uncertain I am capable of revealing so much.
This time I face a performance with no secrets. The first night I walk out waiting in cold fear for the lights to come up. In the light I stand inviting being seen in my fear and my love. I slowly raise my right arm, marking the time of now. My hand trembles with the deepest feeling. Uncertainty becomes for the first time a truthful and therefore powerful expression. The middle section is a trio and I am blessed at the end to join them. I feel their heart and warmth. Not knowing if I will be performing again, I treasure each performer and both performances as never before.
At the same time that I am feeling my own mortality I am losing my mother. Mom’s 96th birthday is March 1st. She is receiving hospice care. Her life is coming to a close any time now. The comfort of her arms will not be possible. How will I manage living through her death in combination with the fear of losing my life?
Adding to the waves of fear I am experiencing is the loss to our community of Della Davidson. She dies on March 13th after her long battle with breast cancer. I am amazed at how many women I know and dance with who have had breast cancer. It is not something often shared. It is good to talk with these women and hear their experience. Terry Sendgraff is a long time survivor of breast cancer whose dance I fortunately saw years ago where she revealed her ‘new body’ after her mastectomy. I call and receive her wisdom and care.
I am told that I must have a mastectomy because the cancer (Ductal Carcinoma) is invasive and spreading through much of my right breast. My surgeon will take a sentinel lymph node at the time of the surgery to see if it has spread beyond my breast. I meet with a plastic surgeon to hear about implant options. All of this information/options is delivered as a bewildering deluge. To help manage all of this new information I worked with the Decision Support Program available through Cancer Support Community. They helped me to communicate clearly with my medical team, ask critical questions about options, and helped ensure that my treatment decisions fit my personal hopes and goals.
I begin getting weekly acupuncture at one of the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. They have sliding scale fees of $15-40. I also go to the student clinic at Ohlone Center of Herbal Studies, where they prepare tinctures and teas for me. It is here and at my acupuncture clinic that I receive the loving-care that I desperately need as I prepare for the surgery ahead. I also begin a stress management class. Our teacher is wonderful. I relearn the importance of simplifying and finding joy in the moment. Being aware that at this very moment all is well.
As the months progress, I have no heart to go into the studio. My long held practice of working in the studio twice a week comes to a halt. However I go with a joyful heart to a movement symposium with the theme of LOVE. There are four of us. We have been gathering for these symposiums for seven years now. We arrive at the theme by consensus. This one is especially picked for me. At the end I am lying on the studio floor with their loving hands touching me. I float in the warmth.
April, the month of my birth and of Bay Area Dance Week, arrives. I experience a separation from my life in dance. I have no idea how my body will feel and be after surgery. Will I die? My fear that dance will be taken away from me is nipping at my heels. I am bereft.
Fortunately, I have felt the benefit of somatic work since my mid-twenties when I was introduced to Ideokinesis (based on Mable Todd’s book The Thinking Body). I begin regular sessions of Feldenkrais and Carniosacral Therapy. They take me to a deep sensing of my body so I can stay anchored in my wholeness.
In order to keep a movement class in my routine I begin taking a qigong class. I am once again happy to be part of a community who love to move. At the same time I receive the health benefits of this practice. Additionally, I am walking with weights on my arms to build my strength. I continue weekly acupuncture and taking my herbs. I am eating healthily. My herbalist suggests that getting ready for surgery is like training for a marathon.
I am figuring out how to take a 6-week work sabbatical. Something I thought impossible. I realize the essential act is to ask and help will be given. I am blessed by the willingness of staff to assume parts of my work. I feel their love.
April is also the time that friends help by organizing a Caregiver Schedule and an email group to give people periodic progress reports. Many of my caregivers come from our dance community. With many I have a long-standing close connection. However I am surprised and touched by those who volunteer that I know but not closely.
April 19th I fly to Portland, Oregon to see Mom. It is the last time I see her alive. I shower her with my love. All the old problems between us become insignificant. I hold her and tell her how much I love her. At the end of my visit, Mom sings for me. Singing is always her deepest expression of joy and love.
April 26th, my birthday, my brother calls me to let me know that she will die any time now. It is difficult knowing that I won’t be able to be there for her transition. In order to feel our connection I begin talking with her spirit. Sharing my joys, love, fears and grief. May 2nd Mom dies. Linda, a staff member at Mom’s assisted living shares with me that she sang Mom all her favorite songs the night before her death. Exactly what I would have wanted for her. This is a dear gift to me as well as Mom.
My surgery on May 24th is coming all too fast. There is no turning back. So forward I must go. I know it is important to find a community dealing with breast cancer and so I attend a breast cancer support group the week before my surgery. I sign up to receive email from this group so that I can keep connected. My stress level is rising quickly and to help I listen nightly to a pre-surgery guided imagery meditation. I get permission to listen to this while having the surgery. This provides me with something beyond my fear to focus on – a safe haven for my spirit.
The nipple-sparing mastectomy with sentinel lymph removal (1 to 3 nodes are removed for biopsy to determine if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body) was done first. Then, during this same surgery, my plastic surgeon put in an implant and reduced the size of my left breast. Holy cow! So much altering of my body in one fell swoop.
I wake in the recovery room and hear the great news that the cancer had not spread. This means I am cancer free and will not need radiation or chemotherapy. All I face is healing from the surgery. The primary concern with wound healing is lymphedema (the arm swells). Other possible side effects are numbness in the upper arm (this can be temporary or permanent) and reduced movement in the arm and/or shoulder. My gratitude for my life cancer-free is immense. Now the uncertainty is will I suffer any of these side effects?
Added to these concerns, I return for more surgery on June 6th because the nipple is not healing. It and the implant are removed. In place of the implant a breast tissue expander is inserted. Once the breast is healed and the tissue expanded this expander is removed and I will receive another implant. This will happen many months later.
The caregivers schedule begins the day of my first surgery and continues for a month. I am showered with help, good company and delicious food. Despite the necessity to stay at home I am not alone. My recovery benefits from this. Although I am far from taking up my dance life, I am still connected to the community through many of my caregivers. We talk and we share. I realize that whatever comes I am grateful for my life in this Bay Area dance community. I believe I will find my way to dancing with this new body. I am healing and I am safe.
On June 24th my family gathers in Sacramento (home for our family since the gold rush era) to celebrate Mom’s life. I wear one of her hats from the 1930’s. This hat became part of a dance I created, Traveling with Bits of Mumbo Jumbo. By wearing it I honor how dance and my mother’s spirit have intermingled. The most precious moment is joining together in singing a favorite of Mom’s, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. I know now that although I do not have her arms to hold me I have her unconditional love to guide and sustain me through whatever comes.
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
National Lymphedema Network: www.lymphnet.org
General and Local Cancer Resources
Breast Cancer Connections: www.bcconnections.org
Institute for Health & Healing at Sutter Health: www.myhealthandhealing.org
Lotsa Helping Hands: www.lotsahelpinghands.com
Shanti Project Breast Cancer Program: www.shanti.org
Women’s Cancer Resource Center: www.wcrc.org
Cancer Support Community: www.cancersupportcommunity.net
Center for Attitudinal Healing: www.cah-northbay.org
Women’s Health Resource Center: www.cpmc.org
(includes The Cancer Buddy Program. It matches volunteers, who are themselves cancer survivors, with newly diagnosed cancer patients.)
Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic: www.charlottemaxwell.org
Craniosacral Therapy: www.upledger.com
Ohlone Herbal Center, Berkeley: www.ohlonecenter.org
People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture: www.pocacoop.com
Part Two of “A Turning Point” will be in the March issue of In Dance.