It was a rainy day outside and the gym was filling up faster than usual. In the myriad groups of people clustered together before the yoga class, several women with graying hair carried out an animated conversation occasionally punctuated with laughter. As the class started, they parted with a mutual promise to meet for coffee later.
One of the women separated herself from the group to begin the stretching exercises. For her the yoga class, much like chatting over coffee, was a ritual that provided comfort and substance to her day. She began her exercises with an enthusiasm common to most active people–she pulled and pushed, squatted and reached, and like so many mornings her body began to wake up.
But at the apex of an arm stretch she felt something completely different. It was a slight burning sensation on the left side of her chest, and it was unlike any of the other daily aches and pains associated with advancing age and more than a touch of arthritis.
She could have chalked the pain up to a pulled muscle, rolled up her mat and gone home. She could have forgotten about it in the chaos of daily life and never thought of it again.
But she didn’t. Despite having passed a recent physical, and following a lifetime of careful prevention, she decided to get it checked out. And that is how yoga class, and good sense, saved my mother’s life.
My mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer was, of course, horrible news. Our family has spent much of the last five years burying four uncles and an aunt, all of whom were diagnosed with cancer. None of them lived for long after their diagnosis, so this latest revelation stirred up our worst fears.
But in my mother’s case the story, at least so far, is very different. Much of the comparison between her good fortune in fighting cancer can be attributed to lifestyle: quitting smoking years prior; exercising regularly; eating healthy foods. Throw in the vagaries of genetics and the combination might very well be the reason she is looking forward to resuming her life rather than putting her affairs in order.
Except that is not the reason. My mother’s active life pinpointed the cancer early, and her cautious decision to seek medical advice was momentous. Within two weeks she had a mastectomy and all subsequent tests have indicated that the cancer has not spread.
Like my mother and millions of others, a cancer diagnosis awaits many of us. Though our lifestyle choices and genetics may move that eventual date forward or backward, recognizing the disease early will ultimately determine whether that diagnosis is a bump in the road or the end of it.
My mother’s battle with breast cancer goes on, but life within my family has begun to return to normal. I am thankful that she had the foresight and good fortune to catch it early, and I will take that lesson with me as I consider my own vulnerability to the disease.
If this latest round with cancer has taught me anything, it is that life should not be lived in fear or denial. So listen to your body and don’t be afraid or unwilling to seek help when something, anything, just doesn’t seem right.
Maybe you will be the one to save your own life.