Into The Light
By Susan Haag, September, 2019
When I was in the tenth grade, my best friend and I went to the New England Tennis Camp in Groton, Massachusetts. After lessons, we were instructed to select an evening activity: Pottery, Dance, Creative Writing, Painting or Yoga. YOGA – What was this thing called yoga? The unknown and mysterious, ever exciting, lured us into its web and we chose Yoga. Outfitted in our Danskin leotards, we giggled continually throughout each class. Why was this lady with the VERY long hair and flowy, flowered dresses telling us to put our bodies in these strange, weird shapes? (Surya Namaskar A & B). And yet, I went home at the end of camp and persuaded my mom to buy me the paperback, Integral Yoga Hatha, by Sri Swami Satchidananda. This funny little book with black and white photos of people in baggy clothes posing in these odd architectural shapes remained in my library, well-used, long into adulthood. That summer, my long and deep relationship with yoga was born.
Fast forward – October 2014.
I went for my routine gynecologic exam wearing my favorite skinny jeans, my suede and sparkly flats, my most delicious black cashmere crewneck with my breezy blue blazer. Great haircut, highlights holding strong, quintessential me. The start of a very good day. I was happy and calm.
By the end of that day, I was rearranging my schedule for a CAT scan. Nine days later, I was in surgery. I woke up from being debunked: a hysterectomy, bi-lateral pelvic dissection, insertion of a metal abdominal port, 9” vertical abdominal scar, an appendectomy and my surgeon telling me, “You have Stage 2 Ovarian Cancer. You will be fine. It’s all gone. Next up, prophylactic chemotherapy protocol.” In my post-op delirium, I asked if I would lose my hair and whether I would still be able to practice my headstand (yes and yes). But the “cantaloupes” (as we renamed cancer) were gone. I was elated.
In honor of my upcoming protocol, I vowed to make a Post-It Wall for each day of my treatment (126 post-its) with a positive affirmation for each day. (You are so much more than your hair. You did it. You are a Princess Warrior. Breathe. You are amazing.) At the end of each day, I would remove a post-it and see my health be reborn. I am an optimist. I had GOALS! At the end of week one, I stared at that wall and wondered how on earth a person could be expected to get through the next 119 days and why did I have GOALS.
But I did have my yoga mat.
Over the course of those next four months, I practiced a lot of yoga (most of it in my head) and made more GOALS. (Get to restorative yoga once a week.) Those days are a blur of physical pain and avoiding mirrors so as not to see myself without “Gigi,” my beloved wig. Medicine through an abdominal port is uncomfortable and punishing. Often, I laid on my heated bathroom floor in a delirium of extraordinary discomfort. Steroids had me crushing the 3 am bedtime. As instructed, I took a drugstore of pain medication and was still delirious with extreme physical pain. Get to Restorative Yoga once a week. And so I did.
Often upon arrival, I was dizzy, other days, nausea sunk me and, on bonus days, I was both dizzy and nauseous. Yet, my mat, my beloved 24” x 68” yoga mat, was always there for me, always available, ever restorative, never judgmental, no matter my mood or condition, always re-energizing some part of me that was in hibernation during treatment. There was not one day that dragging myself from that bathroom floor was a mistake. I always felt reunited to a part of myself that I felt had been kidnapped. The joy of being on my mat reminded me during those months, despite so much that had been taken from me (flat stomach, beautiful long hair, my time…), I was still intact. For 60 minutes and beyond, I was returned to myself, fully back and reconnected to the person I had been for the past 51 years. I distinctly remember getting back on my mat post-surgery at Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor. My place. My spot. My “temple;” filled with my people, so many of whom are now my most beloved and cherished friends. Each day on my mat, a part of me was resurrected, I was in flow and back into the light.
After I finished those 126 days of brutality (“No sign of disease present.”), yup, I had more GOALS. 30 days of yoga. I was bald and now fighting a severely damaged lymphatic system where my leg was extremely swollen. I woke up each day wondering/screaming, “Who took my leg?” Those 30 days re-booted my reason for being and set me on a quest to find my purpose.
Fast forward one and a half years – 2016.
The BEAST is back. More chemotherapy (no hair loss!), more chemotherapy, a clinical trial and more chemotherapy (hair loss again, ugh) plus four unforgettable hospital stays. Five years in and I’m still on this path. Life is so very different now: roller coasters of fear (6-week blood tests), elation (good CAT scans) and every other emotion possible, seeking precious time that often feels stolen from me. I still think about my hair and how phenomenal it is to have it. And yet, my mat, is always my re-entry back into living, not just surviving the brutality of an ongoing Ovarian Cancer protocol. Yoga is my medicine; it awakens the best of me, even as I often observe my abilities/practice diminished from the steroids and massive doses of Napalm-like drugs I have been administered. On my mat, it’s an imperfect/perfect and complex place; world wars against my personal demons have been fought in my head, rooms of my house redesigned, dinner parties planned and arguments resolved. It is a place of great comfort and safety.
The teacher may be within ourselves but I am grateful to my 10th grade yoga teacher for opening my eyes to a world of joy and possibility beyond my imagination, transporting me into the light each time I step on my mat.