Monday, January 5, 2009

Personal Story: Giving Back Through Yoga

Jean Di Carlo-Wagner is a cancer survivor, philanthropist, and yoga instructor. When we found out about her story, we were touched and amazed at her incessant drive to help other cancer patients. Below is her personal story of survivorship, courage, and making a difference in the world.

During the past seven years, cancer has touched my life personally: my middle sister, Linda, is a breast cancer survivor (2001), I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer April 2003, and my mother just died of acute lymphoma (2008) . So, I know cancer from being a first-hand relative, a close friend and a survivor myself.

The Diagnosis
When I was diagnosed (April 2003), I had just turned 47. I was physically active, working at a career, singing as a hobby and I looked 'healthy', so, it surprised everyone but me, because I felt something was wrong with me. It took over four months to get a colonoscopy, over that time, I lost a lot of weight, couldn't eat very much and not be sick and I felt ill. Something told me that is was colon cancer, maybe it was the way my stomach bloated out or the night sweats that kept me await. But, I knew that I had cancer and getting to treatment felt like a long marathon. I knew that I wouldn't be able to exercise after surgery, so the day before I had my colon resectioned, I went to a low impact aerobics class, stretched out with yoga and went home to drop into bed.

I didn't know any other woman my age that had colon cancer (usually an 'old man's disease') and I needed support. I contacted the Colon Cancer Alliance and met my colon cancer Buddy, Suzanne Lindley. Suzanne had already outlived her stage IV diagnosis by four years when I first mether. My stage III diagnosis seemed less frightening when Suzanne told me that her original prognosis was six months! Suzanne continues to guide me in setting an example of advocacy, service to others and living life in the moment.But at that moment in time, what I needed most was another young woman that had colon cancer and had survived.

After surgery to remove a foot of bowel, the oncologist came in and told me that my cancer had spread to the one lymphnod they had removed and he could guarantee I had cancer cells floating around in my bloodstream. He told me that if my cancer came back, I would die. Good thing I was hooked up to morphine, I took the button, pressed it down and laid back in the bed. Immediately, I didn't like this doctor! My husband, Chris, a medical social worker, told me that I was lucky to have a doctor that was a straight-shooter. When your survival is at risk, you listen and follow directions, as a veteran teacher of 25 years, I was trained to give directions; this journey was not going to be easy. I felt better than I had in years after surgery and then thought of weekly chemotherapy for six months.

Three weeks to recover from surgery and weekly chemotherapy was arranged. I made myself a pocket chart out of two pieces of felt squares (teachers know these things!). I filled the twenty-six pockets with angel charms to take with me to t he cancer center every week and leave for others in the waiting room. I lined up twenty-six friends to take me to my appointments, some flew in from across the country, some came from across town; each friend was a light of safety in the scary world of cancer treatment. When I was half-way done, I threw a "Half-way" done party and thanked friends for being with me and my family. Treatment continues to wear you down and that's what happened to me. The cumulative effect of treatments made me physically weaker and I had little stamina.

At the end of treatment, I threw another party and had a healing ceremony in our backyard. My doctor, the one who had sternly spoken to me and smiled little, cried at the end of my treatment because he said he was so glad that I was "well".

One does not feel well after six months of treatment. I confessed to him that I hadn't always liked him because he scared me but that I could not have made it through without his strong-minded direction. I also confessed to leaving painted rock-angels around the cancer center every week, but swore him to secrecy. I still have fun leaving them on my check ups.

My cancer journey felt like this: one day I was a well person (to the world), the next day I was a very sick person. I was now home with a life that didn't look anything like the life I had six months prior. My fatique was so great, I could no longer work as teacher. I stopped most of my social events. And, exercise was getting out of bed, showering and getting dressed. I had no stamina, no strength and little idea of how to regain any of it. I was happy to have survived, but the emotional and physical toll of cancer had just begun to sink into my consciousness. First you just merely wish to survive, then you want to live.

A "New" Body
I tried returning to the gym but was humiliated by my weakness and confused about what to work on first. Should I build muscle strength back with weights? Should I try to stretch my tight muscles with yoga? Do I need some cardiovascular exercise to get my stamina back? Each attempt at a class made me feel more awkward in my "new" body; scarred, bloated, limp, and listless. I returned to the safety of my home and tried working out with a yoga tape. I lasted five minutes before I needed to rest on the floor. It was a confusing and painful time. So much had changed and I didn't know where to start to regain a 'new normal'. I prayed for guidance. I figured God had to have a plan for me because I was still on earth, still breathing and needed direction.

Finding a New Purpose in Life
I was inspired to help others along the journey to wellness. If it had been difficult for me, it had to be difficult for others. I continued my yoga tape and was able to work up to a half hour a day. But my body was not able to do traditional poses for very long, and I needed more breath work and more relaxation. A voice inside said that my new purpose in life was to become a yoga teacher for other cancer survivors. I asked the gym director if she would allow me to teach a class to cancer survivors if I got certified to teach yoga. She agreed. I continue to teach weekly and enjoy it as the highlight of my week! I am joining together a group of yoga teachers that are cancer survivors teaching other survivors; we're out there!

Bringing Yoga to Other Survivors
I noticed that some people in my class were too weak to come to class; even though I make it clear that if you come and meditate and fall asleep, we are happy to provide that hour space of safety! So, another idea was planted in my heart. Why not make an audio tape for cancer survivors, so that those whom cannot make it physically to class can join us in spirit? Yoga for Cancer Survivors took me two and half years to complete. During this time, I was caring
for my elderly mother, teaching yoga, taking classes, and trying to balance the demands of daily life. The music is original, the class is designed through my experience and the experience I have of other teaching other cancer survivors.

In January 2008, my mother died of leukemia. My goal to reach out to cancer survivors became even stronger. The Yoga for Cancer Survivor CD was ready to finish and press. In February, I picked up the 1,000 CD's and started finding ways to give them to survivors. My goal was to give 800 CD's away, which I was able to do, and sell only what I needed to sell to cover the cost of making the Yoga for Cancer Survivor's second pressing. In 2009, I am going to take another leap of faith and repress another 1,000 CD's. What will happen? I don't know. I only know that this is what I'm supposed to be doing! If I can make someone else's life a little better, use my experience to help, I am blessed!

Click here to purchase Jean's Yoga for Cancer Survivors CD.

1 comment:

Jill said...

Wonderful article! You are an inspiration of strength an caring.