Why I Breathe

 

While mopping myself off in the dressing room following a hot Pilates class one morning, I told Mind The Mat co-owner and Pilates instructor Megan Brown, I had no idea why I kept torturing myself in her mat class held in a 90+ degree room other than the sheer fact I am able to.  I practice hot Pilates, because I can.

Wait, whaaa?  I thought that deep stuff was for the yogis.

On October 26, 2012, my 31-year-old husband was diagnosed with Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.  He was asymptomatic and had completed his second Tough Mudder of the year just a few weeks before.  It was a persistent “floater” in his right eye that eventually led him to the eye doctor, which quickly escalated to him being sent to a retina specialist and then on to our general practitioner who ordered a full body PET scan and MRI to figure out what was going on.  The scans revealed he had tumors in both of his lungs, liver, lymph nodes, and bones, plus his right eye.  He was not a smoker, had no known family medical history of lung cancer, nor had he been exposed to hazardous chemicals.

At the time, our son was a few weeks shy of his third birthday, and I was 35 weeks pregnant with our daughter.  A few days later, on Election Day, we met with several oncologists and learned there was no cure, and he had one to two years to live.

After undergoing various treatments and participating in clinical trials up and down the East Coast, two years and three months later, he died of cardiac arrest as a result of his lungs and chest cavity having filled with fluid.

In the early morning hours, I texted a friend and asked her to come pick me up from the hospital and bring me home.  As the sun rose, I sat in the den with my parents waiting for the kids to awaken.  Once I heard them begin to stir, I walked upstairs, picked our two-year-old baby girl up out of her crib, crawled in the bed with her five-year-old big brother, and I told them their Daddy had died.  I had been coached by our family therapist and clergy to speak candidly with the kids using words they could understand.  I explained to them their Daddy’s eyes could no longer see, his ears could no longer hear, his mouth could no longer eat, and as I gasped for air, I told them their Daddy’s nose could no longer breath.  Their Daddy would not be coming home.

Inhale, exhale.  Inhale, exhale.  That seemingly simple process of inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide our body subconsciously does for us, my husband’s could no longer do.  The chasm between being able to breathe and then suddenly to not was no longer very wide.

In the year following his death, I think I experienced every emotion possible.  There was much sadness and grief, relief and peace, fear and anger, and joy and grace, but the most prevalent thing I felt was fatigue.  I felt a deep, deep fatigue way down in my bones from the years spent caregiving, advocating, working full time, gate-keeping, cheerleading, grieving, processing, solo-parenting, and estate settling.  For years, I had placed the proverbial oxygen mask on all those around me first and had neglected to take care of myself.  Even in hindsight, I would not have done it any other way.

Knowing I must remain physically and emotionally healthy for the kids and me, I decided to make a major lifestyle change.  I traded in work memos and e-mails for books and magazines, meetings for coffees and lunches reconnecting with friends, sitting in a windowless workspace for long walks outdoors, business attire for stretchy pants, and I lowered myself to the mat.

In time, I became reacquainted with my neutral spine and could once again do the hundreds, teaser up, and hold a plank without wanting to pass out.  One day as I was moving through the leg series on the reformer, I joyfully and tearfully exclaimed, “I’m baaack!!”  Several months later, an instructor and friend invited me to join her at Megan’s hot Pilates class. Feeling pretty good about myself, I confidently said yes.

As advised, I arrived several minutes early to find a spot on the floor and get settled on my mat.  Within minutes of sitting in that hot room, I feared I had made a huge mistake.  Before the class had even begun, I started to panic.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I seriously contemplated scooping up my mat and running out of the room, but about that time, Megan walked through the door, and it was too late.  I was stuck.

As we moved through the ab series, it was hard, but her cues were so good.  The room was hot, but her playlist was so good.  I was conflicted from the start.

Thirty minutes in, I started to feel nauseated, so I listened to my body and rested when I needed to.  Forty minutes in, I had completely sweated through my clothes and was starting to feel light-headed, having not properly hydrated the night before.  My form became sloppy; my movements had slowed.  I started staring at my watch knowing that was not helpful, but I couldn’t help but count down the minutes as my new goal had simply become to stay in the room until the class ended.

Megan then instructed us to move on to all fours for the glute series.  With my left forearm and knee and right hand firmly planted on the mat, I attempted to swing my right leg into the air.  “Inhale as you bring your knee to your chest; exhale as you extend your leg high into the air.  Point your toes.  Get it up there!  Higher!”

As I watched my own sweat pool onto the mat just inches beneath my face, I wanted to give up, but then Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait” came on.  Tears started streaming down my face as that song had been one of mine and my husband’s.  I don’t know why, but it was.  I guess for the same reason one becomes your spring-break-of-freshman-year song or your summer-abroad song.

Suddenly, I became aware of my breath.  I was reminded that I had the ability to breathe.  To take deep inhales, filling my lungs with air, without it causing me to cough.  I moved out of my body and into my mind and lungs and used my exhale to find the movement.  I could almost hear him telling me, “You’ve got this.  Use your breath.  Atta girl.  Breathe into it.”

Inhale, knee to the chest; exhale, fire your glute.

But I’ll kneel down, wait for now

Inhale, knee to the chest; exhale, fire.  

And I’ll kneel down, know my ground

Inhale, exhale.

And I will wait, I will wait,

Inhale, exhale.

For you.

I’ve got this.

for-hope-walk-family-pic

November is Lung Cancer Awareness month, and these are the (not so fun) facts:

  • One in 15 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime.
  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, regardless of gender or ethnicity, taking almost 160,000 American lives each year.
  • More lives are lost to lung cancer than to colorectal, pancreatic, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
  • Lung cancer has been the leading cancer killer of women since 1987, killing almost twice as many women as breast cancer.
  • 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer cases are in never smokers.

To learn how you can get involved and improve the outcome for people living with lung cancer or to register for this year’s Breathe Deep DC 5K Walk on The National Mall held this Sunday, November 6th, please visit www.LUNGevity.org.

In the meantime, be sure to love a little harder, hug a little tighter and always remember to honor your breath.  Breathe deep, because you are able.

See you on the mat!

 

5 Comments

  1. Avatar Suzanne Hellmann says:

    Sheila, that was really beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Avatar Katie Brown says:

    A beautiful post.

  3. Avatar Carolina de Francisco says:

    Hi Sheila, such a beautiful and inspiring story!!! I feel that way about MTM hot yoga classes…. I say let’s continue to inhale, exhale…. 🙂

  4. Avatar Pam says:

    Sheila, thank you for sharing your beautiful story. I am a lung cancer survivor, one of those 10% of NSCLC patients who had never smoked. Like your husband, I’ve lived an extremely healthy life, but somehow got lung cancer. Your story reminds me, and all of us, to breath deep and enjoy the life we are given. When I do my yoga practice this afternoon, I will inhale and exhale with thoughts and prayers for you and your sweet children, and remind myself how truly blessed I am to be able to breath these precious breaths.

  5. Avatar Molly Wilkinson says:

    Shelia so beautifully written –just as you are living your life. Such inspiration and lovely tribute to Chip. All the best. xo

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