Meet Faith, one of the many warriors directly impacted by the therapeutic programs at Weill Cornell.
Tell us about your experience with the yoga, reiki and meditation program at the Breast Center. Do you think this is something that others would find helpful?
Being introduced to the support program at the Breast Center was a huge turn in my recovery. The new meditation practices introduced to me were very important in the weeks leading up to the surgery and after. Fran really prepared me. I was calm and unafraid on the day of my surgery. It made the whole experience much easier. After surgery, I learned some fantastic yoga positions, both new and modifications to old ones, that really helped me get mobility back in my arms. It felt amazing just to move again and feel like my body was mine. The yoga and meditation both helped me settle into my new body. I’m still going and the benefits are innumerable. I don’t think I’d feel half as good as I do now if it weren’t for the program. I can’t imagine anyone not benefiting from some or all of it. Fran was so patient and intuitively knew how to tailor each portion of the program to my needs. It’s really invaluable.
It felt amazing just to move again and feel like my body was mine. The yoga and meditation both helped me settle into my new body. I’m still going and the benefits are innumerable. I don’t think I’d feel half as good as I do now if it weren’t for the program.
Do you agree that a new pair of tights can be inspirational?
The tights! Yes! I love them. They’re gorgeous, thick, and they move well with you. They are perfect for getting your groove on wherever you feel it most- on the track, treadmill, in the ring, or on a yoga mat. I felt like such a slug while I was going through chemo. I spent so much time in bed, in sweatpants. I mean it’s not hard to imagine. You lose your hair, weight, energy. You don’t feel well. You're getting constant nosebleeds, etc. Of course you’re not going to feel attractive, right? But, when the Alala leggings showed up, they were such a bright spot in those dark months. Putting them on made me feel this kind of hopeful energy which was a foreign feeling at that point. They reminded me that one day I would be moving again. They gave me a goal to look forward to. I remember how I felt the day I put them on, which was “When I get better, I’m gonna rock these at the yoga studio.” Anything that can get you excited about working out, especially when you are that sick, is a huge plus.
When the Alala leggings showed up, they were such a bright spot in those dark months. Putting them on made me feel this kind of hopeful energy which was a foreign feeling at that point. They reminded me that one day I would be moving again.
What advice would you give to someone else who just received a diagnosis?
Oh gosh, there's so much. Don't panic. Educate yourself as much as possible. Find out everything you can about your disease. Get second opinions. Get connected to other people who have been through what you're going through. Ask your doctor if there are any support groups that she or he can direct you towards. Call your insurance company and find out if they offer any programs for cancer support. And, most importantly, there is no "normal" way to feel or react. However you choose to work through it is right for you.
How has having breast cancer changed your outlook toward life?
I'm happy to do everyday tasks. I feel so grateful for small things, and I guess "small" things don't seem so small anymore. I’m much more comfortable about my place in the world, not as easily ruffled as before. And, I do feel that cliché “live every day like it’s your last,” but it doesn’t translate to needing to travel the world or jump out of airplanes or doing something huge to leave my mark on the world. It’s more like, if today were my last day, what impression would I leave on the people I interact with? Can I make the world a better place by simply being a better person? I think so. It’s driven me to be kinder, more human, I think. I used to be very shy. That old fear of what people will think of me has been overridden by this new desire to connect with others, strangers, to acknowledge that we’re all just here on earth doing the best we can and isn’t it amazing and aren’t we lucky?
Feeling like I wasn’t alone was very important to me.
What gave you strength during treatment?
I tried very hard to stay out of the why-me-poor-me spiral and focus instead on what I could learn and gain from the experience. Each set back was a challenge and I turned it over until I could find a bright side or a lesson. I pray and meditate every morning, and do both periodically throughout the day. Meditation sets me up for a calm day, and helps me organize my thoughts. Prayer makes me feel like I haven’t been abandoned. It gives me a sense that I’m being taken care of, even when I’m sick, even when I’m scared, even when I’m in pain. I also stayed in touch with a few women who went through or are going through similar experiences. Having those ladies on speed dial and text was immeasurably helpful. Feeling like I wasn’t alone was very important to me. I also started a blog which began as a way to keep my family and close friends updated without having to tell the same story over and over again, but ended up keeping me sane and being extremely cathartic. Having a place to write down my experience and fears and mini-personal triumphs (I kept my eyebrows!) became a way of sharing and communicating I never knew I’d enjoy. It made me feel connected to the outside world even while I was alone in bed or up all night unable to sleep.
What support have you found especially helpful?
I was so very lucky to have the people around me that I did. My mother stayed with us through a lot of it. She was my rock. I could write a book on what she did for me. My sisters and father visited often. My boss, who is also a close friend, and co-workers, who I’d consider my second family, were very supportive and all stepped up to take a lot off my plate so I could work from home and focus on my health. Friends dropped by to visit, cooked for us, came with me to doctor appointments. I was receiving text messages, emails, flowers, gifts in the mail, phone calls, Facebook messages, prayer chains. I got video messages from my niece of her pretending to shoot laser beams at my cancer. The way my community rallied around me was just incredible.
The other person I could not have made it through without is my husband. We just got married a few weeks ago. We had a strange year. He proposed to me in July. We booked our venue and started planning the wedding in September and then, I was diagnosed in November. It felt like life came to a screeching halt, but we decided to continue with the wedding planning. It was a fun distraction, but I felt very guilty for all the trouble I was causing my family and him. I had this overwhelming feeling that I pulled some kind of bait-and-switch on David. He, of course, never once implied that. It’s just me and my crazy head. He used to come home from work and sit with me in bed for an hour or so. He’d tell me about his day, make me laugh, sometimes just lie there with me. I remember one conversation in particular where he told me if he had to go back in time knowing all this, knowing how scary it would be and how sick I’d get, he’d still ask me to marry him all over again. I hadn’t realized up until then how badly I needed to hear that.
I remember one conversation in particular where he told me if he had to go back in time knowing all this, knowing how scary it would be and how sick I’d get, he’d still ask me to marry him all over again. I hadn’t realized up until then how badly I needed to hear that.
What should friends/family say or do after learning about your diagnosis? What shouldn’t they say?
Everyone probably needs something different. One of the best responses I got was from my older sister. She didn’t respond with tears or shock. She just said, “Okay. So, what are you going to do about it?” I loved that. No pity, no fear. I read this great article about the ring theory or circle of grief which is very accurate. Figure out where you are on the circle and offer your support to anyone in a circle smaller than yours. And, give your sick friend a lot of slack. I still haven’t returned about 30 emails, texts, voicemails, and FB messages. It’s not because I don’t care. Little things were daunting; energy was hard to come by; and chemo brain is real.
"Ring Theory" was coined by psychologist Susan Silk drawing on her experiences of breast cancer. Here is an excerpt of her explanation from The Guardian: "Imagine a series of concentric circles. The person in crisis is at the center. Her closest friends and family are one ring out; lesser acquaintances in the next ring, and so on. The central person "can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens". For everyone else, the rule is: "Comfort in, dump out." They can moan, but only to people farther from the center. "If you want to scream or cry, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are, [or] how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring."
As far as what not to say, I don’t know. This probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I guess it was hard for me to hear people say I was “brave.” I didn’t feel brave or that I’d done anything extra special. I didn’t run into a burning building to save anyone. I didn’t have a choice. I was just surviving. I think maybe the only thing that ever really genuinely stung was when someone implied or spoke as if I had done something to cause this, or that by not doing something I had allowed it to happen. “I told you so’s” about deodorant or eating habits are not a compassionate way to treat someone who is scared, sick, and vulnerable. Although I do recognize that that is often someone’s own coping skill, almost like a reassurance to themselves that they won’t get cancer because they’ve done X,Y, and Z. It’s scary for everyone and the “C” word means different things to different people. No one knows exactly what to say and that means that sometimes people say the wrong thing. I think being a little extra forgiving at times like these is warranted.