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Camilla Ahlqvist

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Will I Die From This, As My Mother Did?

I was 27 years old when I was informed that I had the same disease that took my mother away from me: breast cancer. I had felt a lump in my right breast, but I was so busy in the whirlwind of life, having just made the decision to leave my career in New York for a Masters program in London. Days before I was due to leave, I walked into the doctors’ office for a needle biopsy; they called me a few hours later and told me that I had breast cancer and needed to schedule surgery immediately. 

I took a few minutes after hanging up the phone, swearing to myself, and then gathered myself together and went into full organization mode. Within a week, I underwent lumpectomy surgery and removed lymph-nodes, took genetic tests, interviewed oncologists for chemotherapy treatment, visited with IVF doctors and developed a plan. My life had transformed from normal to surreal within a few moments. 

That is usually what it takes: a split-second, where life is divided into “what happened before” versus “what came after.” The before was ‘normal’ life being worried about job assignments and deadlines, feeling fabulous having dinner and drinks with girlfriends, dating men and wondering about relationships, enjoying and swearing at all the wonderfully weird things that happen when you live in a big city like New York. Life as I knew it had been upended, and replaced with questions such as, “Will I have to remove both of my breasts?,” “Should I choose saline or silicone implants?,” “Should I do IVF since the chemotherapy treatment will make me infertile?,” “Did I want my own children some day?,” and “What will I look like bald?”. The most troubling question of all however was of course, “Will I die from this, as my mother did?” 

In the midst of the chaos, you find yourself grabbing at whatever you can to ground yourself in your new reality. Unfortunately, no one can give you any degree of certainty about anything. There are studies and statistics, and people who have survived and others who haven’t, personal anecdotes of alternative treatments and strict protocols from the leading cancer research institutions. It was my first step into the bigger questions of my life, forcing me to create a framework for myself that was livable while I searched for answers in the face of unending uncertainty. It forced me to take each day on its own merits. It allowed me to slow down and realize that meaning is what you make of it; only you can create what a meaningful daily life looks and feels like. There is the profound in the mundane. Most importantly, I was reminded that we are never alone. 

I heard from friends I hadn’t seen in years, and my closest circle of friends and family showed up for me in ways I couldn’t imagine. They dropped groceries off in the middle of the day, they sent me books to read while waiting in the hospital lounges (because there is so much waiting!), they sent trinkets from sacred places they were visiting during their travels, they sent cards and notes of cheer, and they reminded me that I was surrounded by a rich fabric of people from all over the world who were hopeful for me and supporting me. I felt held and comforted by their presence and these reminders. 

I also joined a women’s support group at the hospital, and we told our treatment stories to each other, compared notes on side-effects and shared our worries over how frightened we were. Stripping bare the pretense that most of us carry with us in an effort to not reveal how vulnerable we can feel at times. It was wonderful to be seen and acknowledged in our shared yet individual experiences. In yoga we often ask “what if challenging times aren’t happening to us, but for us.” What can we take away from the very difficult and challenging times in our life and bring purpose to the pain. It’s not just about seeing the silver lining, but bringing a profound knowing out of something and integrating it into our lives. These split-second moments that shatter our lives as we knew it to be, the conceptions and illusions we held, and then travelling to the dark unknown, to arise better equipped or more secure in knowing what we want in our lives to make them meaningful for us. 

It was this experience which kicked off my journey into wanting to understand more about how to nourish my body, how to feel connected to my body post-surgery, how to find courage to face the world with my little bald head and to reveal my scarred breasts to the man I was dating. As Brené Brown puts it, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” We all have the means to be courageous and to make the tricky times of our lives moments that don’t just happen ‘to us,’ but moments that happen ‘for us.’  

I hope to tell you more about my journey through the tricky times in my life and the resources and tools that helped me survive them and maintain a pretty damned good sense of humor, a silliness and lightness of being. As life would have it, this breast cancer journey was just one of many challenging times that I have faced in the last 13 years. Since then I’ve had two children of which one was born with a 50% chance of surviving, I’ve lost my father to cancer and I’ve been divorced. I developed The Practice, which includes nourishing foods, meditation and movement, as a resource for all of us who are struggling and in need of some new tools to thrive through the tricky times.  I look forward to sharing them with you this year, to help you nourish and nurture yourself through the tricky times of your life. 

This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

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