Demi Garner curls herself around her husband, careful about touching his skin which aches with scleroderma. It is not a gentle disease and it has peeled away layers of Tom Garner. What remains now, at the end, is his ability to breathe. Even that must be assisted by a full face mask rather than a simple, less intrusive nose cannula.
The mask muffles any words he says making his sentences unintelligible. He tries to lift the mask in order to talk to his wife of 19 years, but it takes air to speak. He lifts his mask to tell his wife he loves her. His suffocation shows and she rests the mask down against his cheek where it will deliver, faithfully, the oxygen her husband needs. She is already certain of this man’s adoration.
The house they built together is a womb around them. The caramel colored logs stacked one at a time brought their family together as they all lifted and pegged them into place. In addition to carrying logs, Ian stained them, and pounded nails. He put up walls with his dad. His younger brother, Dylan, got covered in tar as he painted the foundation. Demi sealed cracks with chinking so chilly winds could not penetrate the family inside. Tom taught them to build a house giving them a skill and, in the meantime, united a family.
Demi is quiet. Talking to her husband only makes him want to talk back, and that he can no longer do. She finds the rhythm as Tom’s chest rises and falls. They lock eyes and synchronize as her lungs fill. Their chests empty simultaneously. They continue in perfect unison. Inhale. Exhale. No words. It is only breath they share now.
In linking her breath, however, this wife discovers the intimacy she craves. Years of building a house together, raising 2 sons, skiing, mountain biking and juggling careers crystallize. They breathe in and oxygen rushes to nurture millions of hidden cells Demi doesn’t even know she has. In the coming years she will draw upon these shared breaths. They exhale and let go.
“Going through Tom’s death taught me I had the strength I needed to face breast cancer,” says Demi. She was diagnosed 5 years after he died. “Yoga saved me.” She fought for each and every breath she took that year and, like the breath she shared with Tom, it brought her great intimacy. Yoga held her like a hammock while she fought the disease that battled with her body. She returned to her breath over and over to know what to do.
The ultimate diagnosis came as she drove home over the continental divide. She stopped at the home of a dear friend on New Year’s weekend and received a call from her physician. As soon as she heard his voice she knew. No one calls to give good news on a holiday weekend. Good news can wait. There is no rush for good news. This news was bad.
Cancer. For women who get a diagnosis of breast cancer there are layers and layers to be sifted through. Demi was no different. The first layer is the death sentence. Confronting her own mortality when she had so recently kissed the love of her life goodbye was eerily familiar. But Demi felt certain she was not going to die.
Next was the question of her womanhood. A breast cancer diagnosis almost always includes a look at surgery. Removal of part or all of the breast affected is one option. Almost every woman who faces breast cancer asks the question, “Am I a woman without my breasts?” And though the answer is obviously yes, the internal acceptance of that answer is not as easy.
Demi set up charts with pros and cons. She made lists and did research. She became the fastest breast cancer expert on the planet. But information overload doesn’t make it easier to decide to cut off a part of your body.
What did make it easier for Demi was following her breath. She regularly went to that expansive place where air filled her body with the intimacy she felt with her husband. There are no words that describe it. It is life. Inhale. Exhale.
When she calmed herself with breath, all the charts and information didn’t matter. She simply knew what she needed to do. She arrived at clarity. In the expansive space provided by her breath she was certain.
4 was the critical number. If there were 4 lymph nodes affected the whole breast would be taken and radiation would be the course of treatment. She wanted nothing to get in the way of her treatment, including a new, artificial breast. If she didn’t microwave plastic containers, she reasoned, why do the same to her own body?
If one breast had to go, she wanted them both taken. More than anything, Demi wanted to remain in balance as she faced what lay ahead.
The plastic surgeon couldn’t understand this decision. He felt it was overly radical, and counseled her against it. Affected lymph nodes on one side didn’t warrant taking the other breast. He couldn’t abide her reticence to have the reconstructive surgery.
But Demi listened to what the silence of her breath could tell her, rather than charts or studies or plastic surgeons. She needed a clear view to her future ahead. Reconstruction put something artificial in the very place she needed an open source to light and healing. And, without it, she knew she would feel lopsided with one breast remaining, listing, as it were to one side. Balance was critical to the path ahead.
With her husband she had visited the place where words and arguments had no meaning. She said goodbye without them. She lived in the spaciousness of breath. Breathing in her own truth, she knew precisely what would be good for her, and she knew it so emphatically that she wrote it down and had her dear friend, Sarah, hold that piece of paper in the surgical waiting room.
During the surgery, when the doctors did indeed discover 4 affected lymph nodes, the plastic surgeon visited the waiting room hoping to encourage with one last appeal that Demi change her surgical options. But Sarah showed the doctor the piece of paper with Demi’s request and said, “Take both breasts. No reconstructive surgery.”
“I don’t know how I would have accepted my new body without yoga,” said Demi. “Yoga helped me to befriend this new body of mine without my breasts.” She wore inserts a couple of times in her bra and found herself always shoving them around. One time, while practicing yoga, she was in a side angle pose and looked down to find she had one big boob. She burst out laughing and that’s the last time she wore them.
Yoga allows her to see how her body is working. With each pose she grows a new pocket of space for breath to come in, fill and flow. Yoga allows her to increase her capacity to breathe and, after all, that is what connects her both to herself and the people she most loves.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana is Demi’s new favorite pose. The expansion of side body long mirrors the expansion of pain in daily life: both stretch her. The simple question for Demi became, “Do I resist or do I breathe life in?” She has found new length in the pose. Pain is a constrictor; a carving tool. Breath provides lubrication. On the other side of the pain there can be spaciousness.
Today, 4 years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Demi’s classes are treated to the happiness lecture. “I just can’t stop talking about how happy I am,” says Demi, “And my son is commenting about it. I go to a music festival and weeks later I’m still glowing about how much fun I had there. This is yoga. Yoga opened up these caverns inside my body for all this joy to fill.”
Demi is a living testament that pain and life’s difficult circumstances are not what beat us down; it is our reaction to them. She glows as she opens wide and her palm arches up and over. Her flat-chested torso sings at the sky and it is evident: life is not held in the cards we are dealt. What allows us to lead a full life is in direct proportion to our ability to breathe in the intimacy life offers. All of it.
The Journey Through Cancer by Jeremy Geffen MD was a particularly helpful book for Demi as she traveled this journey. You can research the book and more about Dr. Geffen here.