Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Guest blogger, Alicia Maxwell: My practice through cancer

My practice through cancer 
Alicia Maxwell

On January 16th, 2010 I will be celebrating my two-year anniversary of surviving breast cancer. I was diagnosed with Stage IIA breast cancer at the young age of thirty, finding the lump myself while showering. Needless to say I was shocked because of my age, no family history of the disease, and my overall healthy lifestyle. However, cancer does not discriminate. You cannot control cancer, but you can control how you react to it. My reaction to my diagnosis was to survive and not let this cancer thing get me down. I wanted to continue striving for the things I had planned and continue doing the things I loved. There would be no quitting anything while going through treatment, only modifications. 
My ashtanga practice played an integral role in my recovery, mentally and physically. At the time of my diagnosis, I was just a few poses away from finishing the primary series. I was looking forward to transitioning into second series and gaining a deeper understanding of my practice. As I got closer to treating my cancer, I knew that my practice would have to be modified significantly. My treatment plan included a lumpectomy followed by months of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. 
The first practice after my diagnosis, I rolled out my mat and worked on quieting my mind. It was difficult. My surgery date was approaching and I needed to prepare for battle. My first vinyasa was the most difficult, thoughts flooded my mind and I was bombarded by every emotion imaginable. By the end of my practice I was calmer and more at peace with facing the challenges ahead. Surgery day came, the cancer was removed from my breast and lymph nodes. But it was just the beginning of my journey. 
The lumpectomy decreased my shoulder range of motion and I had paresthesias in my arm, and pain in my breast. I couldn’t do certain poses and my practice was modified significantly. I felt like it was my very first time on the mat. I was frustrated. As I sat in child’s pose, I let go of my frustrations and took this as an opportunity to find myself in each posture. My range of motion slowly started coming back, thank you sun salutations, and I was getting closer to starting chemo. 
My long silky black hair would be gone. The thought brought tears to my eyes. My hair always seemed to come undone during my practice, sweeping my face, and I would become distracted. Now, it had a completely different meaning. I would begin my practice with my hair long, feeling it brush across my shoulders and face. Midway through my practice I would place my hair in a bun, enjoying the texture of my hair. I just wanted to remember. 
I started chemo and my doctor said my hair would fall out in fourteen days. I noticed a few strands of hair in the shower and on the floor, but wasn’t ready to shave it off yet. On day thirteen, I looked down at my mat and the surrounding floor and my hair was everywhere. I came to terms with losing my hair during that practice. The next time I stepped on the mat I would be bald, but still me. Adorning a vintage scarf, I began my practice. The silkiness of the scarf now brushed my neck and shoulders. I took a depth breath and I was at peace. 
Chemo is tough and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but you get through it. I practiced as much as I could during treatment and it helped keep my body and mind strong. At times I could only do a few postures, leaving the remaining time to meditate and pray. It was obvious to my fellow yogis that I was sick. One day a gentlemen I had never spoken to before approached me after class. He said he dedicated his practice to me. It was such a kind and loving gift, I will never forget it. Just speaking of it now brings a smile to my face. 
My journey benefited from placing my bare feet on the mat and allowing my practice to just happen.


  1. I was moved and inspired by Alicia’s story. She is a wonderful example of how to respond courageously to punishing and potentially overwhelming adversity. She will be in my thoughts on January 16. Thanks for sharing your story, Alicia, with such candor and bravery.

  2. Dearest Alicia, I can never thank you enough for sharing your encouraging experience. Huge great hug to you, Vicki

  3. Alicia, thank you for sharing your experience with us. I am so inspired by your courage and persistence during such an unimaginably difficult time. Your discussion of the role your Ashtanga practice played in your recovery has made me value my practice even more. I am so glad to hear that you are approaching your 2 year aniversary of remission. I, too, will keep you in my thoughts and prayers that day.

  4. Alicia, thank you so much for sharing your story. Your honesty and bravery brought tears to my eyes and made me feel grateful to have yoga in my life. You are in my thoughts. Gemma