How Breast Cancer Has Made Me Who I Am

It’s precisely because cancer is a life-threatening disease that it has helped me find who I am. I would have preferred to learn without paying that price. Nonetheless, since two breast cancers were on my paths, I’ve decided to make sense of it all.

The universe threw two early stage breast cancers my way, ten years apart—one in 2004 (stage III) and another in 2014 (stage III that had spread in two lymph nodes). Looking back, they’re atomic explosions that have shaped my life and—as odd as it sounds—helped me find who I am.

Within weeks of my first diagnosis in 2004, I came across yoga for the first time and met my teacher, Aline Frati, in Paris (where I’m from and where I lived at the time). I also consulted with a doctor who was a nutritionist, Dr. Ithurriague. Charcuterie, cheese and wine was part of my diet back then. Hell, that’s normal for a French! Here I was listening to Dr. Ithurriague explaining how nutrition impacts the immune system. I changed my diet, practiced yoga, discovered reflexology, and did pretty much whatever I wanted during the year of my treatments. I could do that since I was on a sick leave while I received 100% of my monthly salary, as part of the French universal health care system.

This was a time of transformation, churning, grief and rest. Dr. Ithurriage also mentioned this guy who had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer and who had decided to live his dream—spend the rest of his life on a sailboat, traveling around the world. The guy ended up being cured and living many more moons. “If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, DO IT. It can make a huge difference,” concluded Dr. Ithurriague.

I had always wanted to live abroad

His words resonated with me. A year after our conversation in his office, I met an American (who lived in Atlanta) during a Thanksgiving dinner in Paris. We fell in love. I had always wanted to live abroad. After a year of a long-distance relationship, I moved to Atlanta and we got married. It was the first time I followed my gut feelings and did something for me.

Eight years went by living in a marriage, working as a freelance corporate writer, and dipping my toe in the water of yoga therapy. The news of the second cancer was just as big of a shock as the first one, especially since my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer at the same time. My medical team did their job while I went on a mission to understand the disease on an emotional, almost spiritual level.

It was time to look at what my breast cancer was saying to me. I worked with a psychologist, Laurent Malterre, who guided me. I searched my soul and my childhood years. I realized I had been left unseen and unheard. I became aware how much that had left a powerful footprint in me, and pushed me to develop a strategy to be seen—all my life, I had given abundantly to classmates, family, life partners, friends, bosses, clients, whomever. I had given to the point of exhaustion, of illness. An exhaustion that had led to cancer. Twice. On the other hand, I had helped others heal for as long as I could remember. No matter how damaged a person was, I saw the diamond they were. This is still true today.

“What is it that makes you, YOU?”

The psychologist asked me the questions I needed to hear, “Stop waiting for others to see you. It’s time you look at who you are. So, what is it that makes you, YOU? What are your beliefs and values? What speaks to your soul? What are you here for?” Each question felt like a wake-up call. I literally had a “a-ha” moment. All of what made me who I was—my yoga practice, my ability to listen and name emotions and feelings, and to see the diamond inside the other—came together. To be me, I had to help others heal and create my own yoga therapy practice in a way that deeply resonated with me.

While creating my yoga therapy practice from the ground up, I learned to value my own needs instead of putting the needs of others before mine. I divorced. The time came when I said “no” to friends who were used to me being present for them whatever my circumstances. I started dancing—another life-long dream.

It’s been a long road, full of turns, trust me. An ongoing process. That’s why I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

Photo: at a weekly contemporary dance class provided by Fly On A Wall and their visionary teachers (here: Jimmy Joyner and Anna Bracewell Crowder) at the Windmill Arts Center in East Point, GA.

Read also:
“Pinktober, aka The Month of Over Giving” (Oct. 17)
“Pinktober — Intuition saved my breast” (Oct. 18)

Yoga Therapy: The Land Unknown

Yoga therapy helps us achieve optimal wellness by bridging the distance between ourselves and the body. It relies a lot on the connection between the practitioner and the client. Here’s my vision of this new modality.

When I say I’m a yoga therapist, I often get the same answer: “yoga-what”?

So, what’s yoga therapy? Well, it’s different from “just” yoga because yoga therapy’s sole purpose is to help a person find their way to reach better health–whether physical, emotional or mental–regardless of their fitness level, body type and mobility. Its works in one-on-one private sessions or in (very) small group classes only.

Let’s have a look at the field. We’re just over 5,000 yoga therapists certified by The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). And that’s in the whole world. So, each of us faces a huge challenge—we’re breaking grounds and making the field. You’re probably wondering what’s IAYT. It’s a non-profit founded in the late 80’s in the Western U.S. by a handful of yogis and doctors. In recent years, the IAYT released training standards for yoga teachers who want to teach yoga therapy and for yoga studios that want to offer a yoga therapy training program. The organization is also working on establishing yoga as a respected and recognized therapy, just like counseling, massage therapy, etc, at the federal level. Yes, we’ve got a long way to go. So, in the meantime, we’re helping our clients heal.

Who can benefit from yoga therapy? About anyone who’s interested in diving deeper in their healing journey: people who want to be present to what is really going on with them, people who are going through anxiety or grief, people who are in post-surgery recovery, cancer patients and survivors, the list goes on.

I’ve started crafting my own yoga therapy practice 16 years ago, long before I became certified. My yoga therapy “protocol” involves a style of yoga I learned from my teacher, Aline Frati, who taught in Paris for 40 years. “We can’t modify anything without the body being deeply relaxed first,” she said. In any given session, I guide my clients into slow movements and deep breathing that’s meant to help them do mainly two things—to relax deeply and to “listen” to their body. When I say “listen to their body”, I mean to feel the body tensions, to become aware of the message(s) these tensions have for us.

Aline Frati, my teacher for 14 years in Paris.

I strongly believe that verbal exchange is 100% part of any healing. So, during each session, I also hold space for my clients to name what’s going on with them and what their body tensions are saying, what part of their past these tensions are bringing forward. The verbal exchange is just as important as the yoga practice because one of the most powerful things we can do for our well-being is to share with others experiences that are meaningful to us. For that part, I work under the supervision of Laurent Malterre, a Paris-based licensed psychologist, author and teacher of clinical psychology.

Holding space. Language. Yoga. That’s what’s yoga therapy is about to me.

Laurent Malterre, licensed psychologist, in his Paris office. He’s co-hosted retreats in the Bordeaux region with two other French therapists who trained at the Esalen Institute (CA) in the 80’s.


Why Do You Need to Feel Close to Your Fascia?

Fascia, the connective tissue that connects every muscle and organ holds our life experiences. When we connect to it, we live a healthier life.

Have you ever felt deeply connected with your body? Have you ever experienced how much that helps you see what is going on with you?

One way to feel connected to your body is to explore your fascia.

So, what is fascia? It’s an umbrella term for the dense connective tissue that surrounds and connects every single muscle and organ throughout the body. Fascia is vital. It’s also called the “information highway” because it moves chemical and electromagnetic substances very quickly in the body. As a matter of fact, it’s through fascia that we experience our life, our being.

However, the importance of fascia was long overlooked. Fortunately, both regular and complementary medicine have done some research on fascia in the last decades. So, we now know that it is an important tissue for health.

Let’s go back in time. In the 80’s, Prof. Danis Bois, a French physical therapist and osteopath, created a soft tissue manual therapy that he called fasciatherapy. Bois started gently stimulating and relaxing fascia throughout the body. Soon after that, he realized that this therapy brought suppressed emotions and memories to the surface. So, he decided to go back to university to study psychology (among other things) so he could learn to guide his clients in their emotional work.

Listening to the “infinitely imperceptible”


Fasciatherapy helps in many circumstances. It improves the sense of self and allows us to be more present to our own experience of life. It helps us take care of ourselves and our needs.

Interestingly, Bois brings to our attention that fasciatherapy’s purpose is not about reaching a modified state of consciousness like breathwork (which is meant to help you release emotions). It’s about listening to the “infinitely imperceptible”.

Did you know that yoga, too, can help you (re)establish a relationship with fascia? The key is to find a teacher who is present and who will guide you in a slow practice where breath is the key. This style of yoga practice helps fascia to move and release. It also provides a space for you to connect with your inner sensations and tensions. There is something truly magical in experiencing this physical sensitiveness. Yet, if we want to heal we also need the verbal exchange. In other words, we need to translate these sensations and tensions into language, to name the feelings that hide behind the body sensations. Because a mind body practice is about feeling the body and breaking the silence.

Sources:
Centre d’Etude et de Recherche Appliquée en Psychopédagogie Perceptive
Fasciapraktijk Amsterdam
– Article “L’éveil sensoriel” published in Inexploré, spring 2021. Inexploré is a French quarterly magazine at the crossroad of science, spirituality and psychology.

Our Body has All the Answers. We Need to Listen to It.

Our life experience expresses itself in our body. That’s why I invite yoga therapy clients to dive in the depth of their flesh to listen to the body’s messages. Then, I encourage them to speak their truth to truly meet another and, ultimately, to free themselves from emotional wounds.

It’s during the course of two very serious diseases that I started doing work on the body and how it relates to emotions. I have learned a lot along the way. I have learned any trauma, any information that is too painful to process consciously, any suppressed emotion finds its way in the body in the form of tension and, sometimes, disease. I have learned our psyche strives to forget these painful experiences and feelings. We take refuge behind our masks and protections and, often, we set our body aside.

However, if we want to go deeper in our wellness journey, if we want to live a life that is in harmony with who we truly are, we need to feel, become aware and accept those suppressed emotions so that we re-integrate them into our life’s journey.

To do that, we need our body’s help simply because our psyche and body are intimately connected. They are like the hand and the glove. If the hand moves, the glove moves too. In other words, our life experience always finds a way to express itself in our physical body.

So how can we heal emotional wounds with the body’s help?

The body speaks to us but, most of the time, we don’t pay attention to those signs, we don’t feel anything. That’s why any healing process starts with allowing ourselves to pause–so we can go inwards and listen. Aline Frati, my yoga teacher, used to say, “There is no healing without taking a pause.”

“What do you feel?” is the fundamental question

Because of this, my yoga therapy method includes a style of gentle yoga that brings the person to focus on a slow, deep yogic breathing while going in and out of simple poses at a slow pace.

“What do you feel?” is the fundamental question that needs to be asked. The goal is to bring us to feel our body and listen to what it says, to be on the lookout of what the body is expressing about ourselves, about our emotional and physical wounds. The point is to become the explorer and the observer of what triggers our emotional and physical pain.

Once we have listened to what the body says, then we can move on to the other aspect of the healing journey: to put our feelings, our life experience into words. We need to share our wounds and our dreams with others who can listen. To heal, we need to truly meet another. This is the reason why all my classes start and end with a healing circle. I ask participants to participate regularly to the classes. That’s because each person heals thanks to the yoga practice, the work I do as a facilitator and also thanks to the relationship they build with the others.

This healing journey is a hard road. It requires courage and patience. However, the effort is a small price to pay for more wellness and joy in our lives.

Photo: Femme Accroupie (Crouching Woman), 1880-1882, Auguste Rodin. From the”Picasso-Rodin” exhibit, Musée Picasso, Paris, June 2021.

Rebirth

Rebirth is the story of my life, the thread that goes through my existence.

I was born in the first days of spring, on March 28. I imagine that’s why the idea of rebirthing, whatever the ordeals I’ve come across, is so present in my life.

That constant cycle of rebirth is the message I carry, and it’s because of that message that I’ve become a yoga therapist—to help my clients rebirth of themselves.

To rebirth means to die, first.

I believe that you are on a journey to let something die inside of you. For one goal only–so that you can rebirth of yourself. With more self-esteem. More self-confidence. More aliveness. More joy. More love really. No matter what your circumstances are.

What are you dying to? And how are you rebirthing?

Happy spring.

The Fig Tree Whisperer

My cousin Giavonni propagates fig trees from parent trees in Italy, and gives young plants to grow to friends and family. One of them has crossed the ocean to Atlanta…

Giovanni Picano, my cousin, has a passion for the fig trees that grow in the rich soil of Cassino, the small town in Southern Italy where he grew up.

Born in the thirties, Giovanni has a rough start. The war makes him an orphan when he’s barely in his teens. He ends up as child labor working on his grandparents’ farm. He’s hungry and ready to climb these trees as soon as the figs are ready!

A decade later, Giovanni immigrates to France for a better life. He’s a builder. With his wife Rosina, who’s also originally from Cassino, he builds a house—the same house where they both live today–just outside of Paris.

For decades, Giovanni regularly visits Cassino. He needs to see those fig trees! (He’s less mobile now and hasn’t been there for a couple of years.) During each of his visits in Cassino, he cuts branches from parent fig trees and brings them back to Paris to grow new trees in his backyard or a friend’s backyard. Today, his big “Cassino” fig trees in his Paris backyard are legendary in the family.

In 2015, after my father passes, Giovanni gives me a sprout of one of his fig trees to bring back to Atlanta. My ex, John, plants it in his garden. The plant in Atlanta that comes from a parent tree in Paris that comes from a grandparent tree in Cassino, becomes a big fig tree!

I am simply ecstatic when John gives me three young plants, last summer, so I can grow them into new trees in my own backyard. One has been in the ground since then, and I’m about to plant the other two in the next few weeks. A little piece of Paris and Cassino are in my home in Atlanta, and you have no idea how good that makes me feel.

Summer ’20. The gorgeous leaves of my fig tree.

“I Need You To Have Faith”

How the healing journey of a wound on my breast has taught me the power of faith.

May 2014. My marriage is going to hell. I am diagnosed with a second breast cancer, and my father receives the diagnosis of a lung cancer the next day. This extreme situation calls for me to move back to Paris where my parents live. All three of us need to be under the same roof.

The breast conserving surgery goes well although the situation turns tricky. Complications bring on an infection in the incision that simply won’t heal. My treatment includes 4.5-months of chemo–a must considering the tumor’s profile—which I am about to start.

An infection. Chemo. Those things usually don’t go well together. I have no other choice than to start chemo and hope the infection heals.

I manage—God knows how—to get rid of the infection at the end of these 4.5 months. What a relief for both my surgeon and I! Another tricky turn comes up though. We’re now in the middle of winter. The incision transforms into a wound which has to heal from the bottom up so that it doesn’t get infected again. This means I need to go to a nurse, every single day, so that they clean the wound and change the dressing, until the wound closes up. How long will this take? No one knows.

Two months later, the wound is still wide open. I go visit my surgeon for one of those frequent check-ups. I feel so discouraged I cannot hide it. “For the wound to heal, I need you to have faith,” says Dr Dulaurans. His words wake me up. They echo what my friend and reflexogist, Rodrigue Vilmen, tells me for months now, “You’re emotionally torn and don’t want to let go of your marriage. The wound is the physical expression of this struggle. Have faith. The wound will heal in the spring when you will feel clarity again.”

That’s exactly what happens. Six months later.

Today, I’m asking you the same thing—Have faith.

Let’s Talk Wellness

The world is passionate about wellnessfinally!and so am I. I have adapted a workshop, that I originally designed to help people recover from a serious disease, into a workshop for “healthy” people. “Achieve Wellness In Uncertain Times” helps you think about wellness—in a different way.

In 2017, I designed a three-day workshop, Thriving After Illness—A Transformational Workshop, as a yoga therapist and a two-time cancer survivor.

The workshop was originally meant for people who recovered from illness. Its purpose was to help them restore their wellness, re-ignite their life force and re-emerge glorious out of their health crisis. I shared what helped me in my own healing journey.

Thriving After Illness drew from three practices: yoga, Gestalt therapy and nutrition. The workshop involved the yoga I teach which is a powerful healing tool at the crossroads of the body and the psyche. It also involved Gestalt therapy. I asked questions to the participants: “What is going on in you, right now?” “How do you feel?” “How do you participate in your health?” “What are your dreams?” I included this part because I believe that exploring our own humanness and share our truth with others, helps us restore our general health. Finally, the workshop was also about nutrition as it is one of the most powerful ways we can bring life and light into our body.

Now, everything’s changed.

The pandemic is bringing forward any unresolved issues in our lives whether they are connected to our body, our emotions, our relationships or our life’s objectives. Those of us who used to never give a thought about wellness, are now interested in the subject.

That’s what brought me to adapt Thriving After Illness for a broader audience. Achieve Wellness In Uncertain Times is accessible to everyone, not exclusively to people who have been affected by a serious disease.

My new workshop is a live, virtual discussion where I share the ways I have found to manage stress and take my place in the world. I also ask questions. Sometimes, difficult questions. Necessary questions. Participants share, bond. Sometimes, they find answers, sometimes they don’t. “I leave the workshop with many questions I never thought of asking myself,” said a participant at the end of the workshop. At the very least, attendees come at the other end of the discussion with an entirely new vision of what wellness is. As another participant puts it, “It’s been nice to challenge the status quo”.

I have hosted Achieve Wellness In Uncertain Times for the first time ever for the Alliance Française of Atlanta, this past September. I am now taking the workshop virtually on the road and will host it for the Alliance Française of Portland (Oregon) before offering it to other communities. Because who doesn’t need wellness, right now?

Back Home

The coronavirus has brought me home, literally and figuratively. What is it teaching you?

“Illness is a shortcut”, my yoga teacher told me, one day.

I am seeing how much Aline was right as the pandemic–and the lockdown that has gone along with it—makes many of us re-consider the things that are not quite working for us—whether it’s our health, a job, a relationship, or just the way we deal with a specific situation.

I have been affected by the coronavirus, too.

Mid-March, shortly before Georgians were told to “shelter-in-place”, my boyfriend at the time convinced me to leave my apartment in Atlanta where I live and to drive to stay with him in North Georgia. Love, six acres of land and a vegetable garden motivated me to pack and go.

There was another deeper motivation—the need to be heard and accepted, to find a nest where I could feel safe and secure. Something that I have longed for, all my life.

In short, that day in March, I was driving to paradise.

In the course of three weeks, I realized that, as beautiful as this paradise was, it was his paradise. I felt who I was didn’t fit in. I caught myself saying“yes” when really my soul meant “no”, too often. I was compromising my integrity.

In the end, I chose to say “no”. I chose to confront my fear of being rejected. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who has constantly tried to meet the expectations and desires of others. 

I also chose to confront the fear of driving through a locked down Georgia and Atlanta, in the midst of the pandemic.

I drove back home feeling peaceful. “Safe in integrity”, said my friend Roy.

Since then, I have been doing something I have never done before. I have been busy creating my own paradise.

Whether it’s practicing yoga, re-arranging my office, re-planting, bonding with family and friends in new ways, teaching French and yoga therapy, occupying my blog again, cooking, you name it, I am rooting in my own nest. Feeling safe. What I have been searching outside of myself for decades, has been inside all along.

I live in integrity. I feel it in my body. What better thing could I do to protect myself from a life-threatening disease?


I Am Beautiful

Appalachian North Carolina

I’ve decided to give myself a gift. That gift is to see the beautiful woman that I am. Finally.

It’s Pinktober. This time of year, I usually write a blog post about experiencing breast cancer. This year, I feel different. I feel like reflecting on things–three things–that make me… beautiful. Yes, that’s right—BEAU-TI-FUL.

My “secret”

I have a “secret”. It’s a deep knowledge of feelings and emotions, a deep knowledge of human-ness and humanity. That knowledge is part of my fabric. It’s an insatiable desire to discover new worlds—whatever they are—, to reach out to the soul of others and get to understand them. Whether I walk through a Malcom X Festival, groove in a community of hippies or attend an Alcoholic Anonymous speakers meeting, I connect with others. Each time I connect with them as if I could become their best friend, if only we’d have a little more time together.

Rise above

Cross two cancers, move across the ocean, experience living together, live through a divorce and losses of all kinds, cope with a complete change of career… All this while still believing in love, wanting to build a life together, and… dancing. I go through my ordeals with the willingness to rise above, to keep believing that everything is possible again and again. Hey, you, all the angels that look after me, please help me keep my willingness that way!

Authenticity

“Stay who you are”. Leif Roland, my therapist and gestalt trainer at the time, made that demand to me shortly after I landed in the States, thirteen years ago. Immersed in a new culture, I was paralyzed by what I felt was expected of me—to be polite, smiling and happy, no matter what. His words gave me the permission to be myself. And I have. No matter what.

How about you? What makes YOU beautiful?


Related posts:
Pinktober–Intuition Saved My Breast
Pinktober aka The Month Of OVER Giving