2013 was a very eventful year for me. I completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, celebrated my 40th birthday, became baptized and a week later was diagnosed with Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
On July 3, I was bathing with my 3 yr old daughter when my fingertip grazed the outside of my left breast and I felt IT. I took a deep breath, put my daughter to bed and immediately got on my knees to pray. I recall saying, “Lord, I don’t know what you have planned. I’m scared, but I bring it all to you, to rely on you through whatever is coming my way.”
Immediately friends and family began sending me uplifting gifts, most of them pink in some way. I received a ‘Fight Like a Girl’ hat and wore it often (and still do, I’m wearing it as I write). The theme of ‘fighting the good fight’, and terms like ‘battle’, and ‘survivor’ kept coming at me. So I decided if I was in a ‘war’ against the cancer in my body, I would need weapons. My weapons of choice were (and still are!):
1. My faith in Jesus Christ
2. My 3 yr old daughter, being her role model and champion
3. My yoga practice
At the time of my diagnosis, I had been practicing vinyasa yoga for 7 yrs, was a newly minted teacher, and one of the first questions to my doctors after I knew my survival rate was, ‘Can I ever practice yoga again?’ Choosing to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, I knew my chest muscles would be cut and compromised. After my plastic surgeon said I could return to practice after surgery, I then asked, ‘How soon?’ I believe he said ‘8 weeks’ but for me, 3 weeks after my surgery, I needed to breathe and move and be in community with others healing from cancer. I was praying often and I needed to step onto a mat and reconnect my body, mind and spirit. A kind friend drove me to a therapeutic yoga class provided by my local hospital. In that first class, I just breathed as deeply as I could, moved my arms as much as my wounds would allow. It was hard. It was humbling.
As I exercised to get my range of motion back there was one particular movement that brought tears every time; partly from pain and because it was a heart-opener yoga pose. In those poses I was most vulnerable emotionally as well as physically. I would cry at random moments on my mat and most times could not verbalize why the tears were flowing.
A deep humility was experienced over and over again throughout my recovery, for how physically weak I was, for how physically strong I used to be, for how I wasn’t able to plan much and was forced to take one day at a time. Breast cancer demolished the illusion of control I thought I had over my life.
I turned to God in prayer to help me through the pain and discouragement. I kept feeling His peace and presence and began to believe that He must really have a purpose for me and for my breast cancer journey. That this was not just ‘happening to me’ but there was a much larger plan in motion that included more than me and my daughter.
And I kept coming back to my yoga mat. There is such vulnerability during treatment, I found it so easy to shut down emotionally, or become disconnected from my body. I was grateful I learned through yoga how to ‘listen’ to my body to know when to push myself and when to back off during my recovery. I began attending my former physically demanding vinyasa yoga classes and my ego was knocked down several pegs to be unable to do only half of the practice. However, I figured out how to practice with the rest of the class but avoid any weight bearing on my upper body. I worked myself into the poses week by week, feeling so grateful to be on my mat, in community with others, doing what I loved and what I knew was helping heal my body. Practicing during my recovery and chemo helped me feel in control of my life, and I simultaneously marveled at the body’s ability to heal itself. My eyes and heart were opened to the physically and emotionally hurting people like me who needed a path to get well.
During the rough hours and days of chemo, I tried to remind myself that other women had endured worse in order to keep perspective. I was depleted and beat down. I felt like I was in a time warp where sometimes the minutes and seconds stood still in my pain and exhaustion. I was constantly irritated and agitated due to the steroids. I felt raw and stripped away of pretense, of trivial meaningless worries. I felt clarity like never before and I reveled in it. There was freedom in this space like no other. Most importantly during this time, I was in deep communion with God. He was so faithful to His promise to always be with me, to give me the strength I needed, and I never felt alone.
There were many days I didn’t get off the couch and didn’t make it to yoga class. The silver lining was that I had lots of time to do Bible study! God opened my eyes to this truth: He had been preparing me to help fellow pink sisters through yoga. I could see the people, opportunities, education and timing all coming together. I felt Him nudge me and whisper in my ear that He had equipped me for this moment. And so Faithful Warrior Yoga was truly born.
The pink sisters whom I’ve taught to this point have shown such determination and moxy. They want to feel better, they want to regain as much mobility, flexibly and strength as possible. They don’t want to allow cancer to limit them any more than it already has. Like me, women come to yoga practice feeling tired, nausea, or sore and they breathe deeply into those spaces, and facilitate for themselves internal healing. Yoga gives them an opportunity to reconnect or perhaps for the first time, connect to their bodies, and listen to the queues their bodies give. To come back to their mat, class after class when it’s not easy nor comfortable is an act of sheer determination in an effort to take control over what each woman can in her journey.
My life was forever be altered by breast cancer. I have a completely fresh and profound knowledge of health and of sickness. I carry the responsibility to pay forward my experience and support I received. It is a gut deep feeling, a burning in my heart that fuels me.
I feel incredibly honored to serve God and others. I’m looking to Jesus for all I require to carry out my life’s purpose, to minister to other women and to be a godly momma. I am now taking the leap of faith, totally changing careers and paths, forgoing many creature comforts and corporate stability, in order to live out loud and follow this God given passion. While I am reaching others, I am simultaneously making sure not to burn myself out. I am reminded daily when I look into my daughter’s eyes that mommy must continue to take care of herself too!
A verse I clung to during the past year continues to speak to my heart today, “12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
My hope and prayer is that we who have been affected by a breast cancer diagnosis will not just survive, but instead, thrive.
Vickie Vo, Founder Faithful Warrior Yoga