Kathryn Budig interviews yoga teacher Caitlin Marcoux on her strategies for facing fear and finding strength in the face of breast cancer.
In honor of upcoming breast cancer awareness month and all the amazing women, men and families affected by this disease, I wanted to sit down with someone inspiring, uplifting and incredibly raw. Caitlin Marcoux fit the bill to a tee. She’s my friend, student and a fantastic yoga teacher herself. We discussed her fear of diagnosis, the bumps in the road, what it means to tackle cancer like a yogi, and the importance of finding our tribe.
Kathryn Budig: A dear friend of mine was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and our initial response was fear of the unknown. Can you share your experience and a few pointers on how to get through the beginning whether you or a loved one are dealing with it personally?
Caitlin Marcoux: I am so sorry to hear about your friend. We’ve finally come to realize, that breast cancer is non-discriminatory and can affect women of all demographics—even those of us in the yoga community and/or those of us living healthy lifestyles. Being a young and extremely active person myself, I was shocked when the “likely benign” mass we had been keeping an eye on in my right breast exploded into an aggressive cancer which threatened my life. It was difficult to reconcile the reality of my cancer with my lifestyle, and it destabilized the ideas I had about myself and who I was. Because my breast cancer was invasive by the time it was diagnosed accurately, I spent 16 months in chemo and undergoing a bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstructive breast surgery. I just had my 31st and final infusion this past July.
Whether you are the patient or the advocate, surrounding yourself, with positive people, uplifting energy and practicing grounding techniques like seated meditation can help immensely to anchor your thoughts of fear and anxiety, especially during the initial firestorm of diagnosis before treatment has begun.
KB: Breast cancer treatment is physically invasive, but beyond that emotionally damaging. What unexpected emotions did you experience during and after your treatment?
CM: Being a yoga teacher and wannabe Buddhist, I had some strong ideas about how I would navigate breast cancer. I thought I would be okay with my hair falling out, losing my eyebrows and saying goodbye to the natural breasts, which had nourished my son, but in reality, my philosophical ideas about non-attachment hadn’t prepared me for the harrowing process of watching my body atrophy into something I no longer recognized. Losing everything from my eyebrows to my milk ducts turned out to be a much bigger deal than I had expected. Feelings of vulnerability and insecurity overwhelmed me at times, and I battled depression, often shamefully in secret. Once I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to negotiate cancer “like a yogi” or to “do cancer” in an evolved way, I found myself able to make peace with my feelings of grief, anger and sadness.
I am now 2 months out of treatment, but I will be on hormonal therapy for the next 5 to 10 years. My particular type of breast cancer is estrogen-positive and thrives in an estrogen-rich environment. So part of my daily routine now involves taking enough Tamoxifen to keep my estrogen suppressed. And while I am obviously grateful for the increased chance of survival Tamoxifen has given me, it continues to present me with some uphill battles, namely menopause-like symptoms that sometimes really rock me physically and emotionally. Tamoxifen can be very drying to any and all mucus membranes, cause hot flashes, insomnia, and suppress sexual appetite. I was heartbroken when a few weeks into taking it, intercourse became painful and reaching orgasm became challenging for me for the first time in my life. There’s not a lot of information out there about how breast cancer and its treatments affect women sexually, but it’s a really important conversation we need to start having. There are of course many ways to work around these symptoms, and I’ve tried to write about them on my blog. But my hope for the future is that doctors are upfront with patients sooner about the sexual side effects of cancer treatment and encourage an emotionally supportive discourse between patients and their partners.
KB: How has your yoga practice helped you throughout your experience?
CM: My practice was one of the most important tools in my tool bag. Although my once athletic asana practice shifted into one that was more restorative with moments of deep stillness, it helped me visualize the flow of my own energy was working with, not against, the circulation of chemotherapy in my body. While I moved around on my mat, I would often meditate on the prana in my body healing my nervous, digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems, keeping the damage of the chemicals I was ingesting to a minimum. In addition to it’s physical benefits, my yoga practice buoyed up my spirit. It became my hallmark rally ritual to do one posture at the outset of each infusion. My friends and I came to call these ChemoAsanas. On days I was feeling strong I’d bust out Tittibhasana on the arms of the chemo chair, or do a handstand while hooked up to the IV. This always made my fellow cancer patients and nurses smile and laugh. We’d post these photos immediately on Facebook, and I’d entertain myself during my infusion by watching the comments come pouring in. It was a way I found I could be a participant in my own healing process, rather than just a patient.
KB: I just taught an event for the amazing organization, Bright Pink. It was a room full of 600 women exuding strength, hope and this connection to their tribe. How has your experience affected your relationship with other women? Did you find strength in numbers?
CM: I couldn’t agree with you more. There is incredible strength and confidence that manifests when people are united by a common experience. The breast cancer sisterhood is a strong, vibrant and loving community, and the bonds between sisters become unbreakable.
I just returned from the Tour de Pink; a 250-mile bike ride that benefits the Young Survivors Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for, supports and educates young women with breast cancer. We were 206 riders strong, and 50 of us were survivors. Though we all hailed from different parts of the country and had our own unique stories to tell, we were one united army of cancer warriors, all on the same life-changing journey together.
Breast cancer changes you forever and can often rip many things away from you. But I’ve come to realize that we each have the power to choose how it will frame our lives. As with any challenge, if seen through the lens of opportunity, it can bring us many gifts. The sisterhood is one such gift. And for that I am eternally grateful.
For more on Caitlin, visit http://caitlinmarcoux.net