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How Yoga held me through breast cancer

Updated: May 19, 2023

I qualified as a Hatha Yoga teacher in 2000 and it soon became the most important thing I did for my mind and body. I always knew how much the practice helped me emotionally but little did I know just how much I was going to rely on it.

When my sons' first baby was born prematurely and passed away I thought my broken heart would never recover, it was the hardest thing I'd ever had to go through. More than my personal practice, it was teaching that helped, I had to be strong. It's like being an actor I guess, your audience awaits and you get out there and do it! But it's not an act, I teach with my heart and I feel my students 'get that'. Most of the students I work with are regulars and I am very honest and open with them, like family, they support me and I feel stronger when I am teaching.

Every year I pilgrimage to India where I have been supporting a school and a sponsor boy. Christmas just passed I spent in Rishikesh in the Ashram of a Swami I had met when he was visiting Scotland. I then attended a residential workshop at Sadgurus place in Coimbatore over New Year, before going to Tiruvanammalai where the school is and my second home near Arunachala Sacred Hill.

Every time I travel in India I return with a heart full of spiritual experiences and this time was one of the most enlightening trips I had experienced. I returned home feeling on top of the world, fit, healthy and happy, then a couple of weeks later I felt my world come crashing down on me.

A letter popped through the door from the breast screening, I had been recalled.

I had been for my third routine mammogram just before leaving for India, I remembered feeling agitated at the appointment because I thought the nurse wasn't confident, she kept saying "I'll just do that side again, let's see if I can get a clearer picture " . I did not for one minute suspect she had seen anything out of the normal. Even when I received the letter I thought, see, I knew she hadn't got it right!

My daughter aome with me to the next appointment, only because the letter said it may be an idea to take someone, at first I asked her just to sit in the waiting room. When the nurse said she would get the doctor alarm bells began to ring.... loudly, it all happened so, so quickly and before I knew it I was on the table being scanned with the Ultrasound. My daughter held my hand as the doctor took biopsy's of suspect tissue, it was very surreal. I was still convinced it would be nothing, after all I was fit and healthy, didn't smoke and followed a vegetarian and more recently a vegan diet, must be a mistake, mustn't it ? I carried on life as normal as possible but it was constantly on my mind, meditation was difficult I must admit because while I was teaching I could pretend it wasn't happening.

My sister came with me for the results and it was diagnosed as DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ. I didn't have a lot of breast tissue and had breast implants for 16 years. They spoke about removing the tissue and replacing my implants, to be honest I didn't think it was anything to really worry about. What I didn't realise was that they meant I would require a left breast mastectomy, that word was not mentioned until the next appointment with a surgeon and that really scared me, I couldn't take it in, this couldn't be right? A week later I met with the plastic surgeon who said he would try to save the implant so at least I would wake up with a breast, minus a nipple. Throughout these appointments I didn't cry, I didn't shout and scream but I can't say I didn't swear a bit after the doctors left!

However I hardly missed a class, teaching was my saviour, my students are my life raft and Yoga is my toolbox from which I pick out the tools I need for that day, Asanas, Pranayamas, The Gita and all it's many lessons and of course chanting.

It all began in February 2017 and my mastectomy was performed on the 5th April, I returned to teaching on the 21st of the same month. Teaching Yoga is my therapy. While in hospital I practiced a lot of Pranayama, I did simple Asana like wrist and hip rotations, slowly followed with shoulder and neck rolls and within a few days I could do reverse prayer hands behind my back. I put all that down to the strong practice I enjoyed before the operation and simply my love of Yoga and desire to get back on top as soon as I sensibly could. My sister, my Mum and my children were such a fantastic support as were my students and friends throughout this journey, and continue to be with me every step of the way. Many of them have since gone and asked for screening and checks and if I have helped to have them be more vigilant and aware then I feel that's one of the reasons that it has happened to me.

It's been four weeks now and I am still mostly teaching vocally only but I have a little more movement and strength each day. Pathology reports showed that I did have a little of a more aggressive cancer in my sentinel lymph node which was removed at surgery but that there was no need for radio or chemotherapy. I will be on medication and require a further operation but I feel blessed it was caught so early and encourage all my students, family, friends and everyone reading this to attend their check-ups and check themselves and if you are not sure, then ask for help.

Yoga is so much more that a stretch or exercise, for me it is a saviour, a coping mechanism, an old dear friend that will never not be there for me. I am looking forward now to leading my retreat in rural Spain and my annual big charity fundraising event of 108 sponsored Sun Salutations and Yoga festival, planning a Bhakti immersion course in India and loving life.

With love and gratitude - Karina Carmichael, owner, Giving Tree Yoga + Wellness

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