This blog originated from desiring an outlet where I could share my love of photography, writing, travel, and yoga. Quickly, I found myself diving deeper into those aspects of my life and further away from technology and time online. It wasn’t till recently I found the opportunity to dive deeply into myself in a way that feels therapeutic to express with friends and strangers. What I am about to share is the beginning of a whole new... Art of Balancing.
On September 2, I celebrated my 28th birthday. It was all orchestrated by my amazing partner, Mac. He rented canoes, got a bunch of my friends together and we set forth to an island on the Upper Kananaskis where we had snacks and burgers. We listened to music and laughed and let the mountain wind try its best to blow us away.
After an eventful trip back to the 'mainland', we returned home, shipwrecked and ready to dance away the evening at the one-night-only, Back Alley Reunion. We did all the things. Embraced those darker days of emo tunes and hardcore rock 'n' roll by head banging and getting messy. It took me back but also reminded me how far I had come. I woke up the next morning to a hangover(as you can imagine) and like a bad joke it didn’t go away.
I had been experiencing health issues for the last six months. It was always something and I was 'sick of being sick'. I kept with my yoga practice, healthy diet, hiking mountains, and taking all my hippy potions, yet my immune system kept failing me. It got to a point where my doctor would say, what is it today? and I started to think maybe I was becoming psychosomatic. Does my doctor think I am out to lunch?
Our last appointment, she asked me, Do you want blood work done? Uhhh, Did she just ask me if I want to stick needles in my arm? Ya, Okay… that’s a NO. Needles made me uncomfortable and if I could, I avoided them. But two weeks later, my night sweats got worse, my fevers became a daily occurrence, my joints began to swell and my energy dipped to a record low. I guess I should have gotten that blood work done…
It is funny how strange our triggers can be. I remember the moment clearly, something so simple as walking down to the basement to grab fresh, clean whites from the dryer. I don’t know about you but washing my whites is one of my most satisfying chores. I pulled them out, placed them on the dryer and stared at them blankly. Defeat had somehow washed over me in a way I’m not sure even makes sense and I retreated to the couch upstairs. I didn't even have the energy to lift the littlest load of laundry. It was this flicker of a moment that something inside me said it’s time to be honest with yourself. I guess I was the one that had to come clean.
The next day, I woke up and called my clinic to find out that my doctor was out of the country and like a prayer being answered, I was assigned to the doctor that I had been wanting to see for months. When I met her I knew immediately why she was so difficult to get an appointment with. She was beyond amazing and listened to my every concern, intently, with this true desire to help. She placed her hand on my arm, looked me in the eyes, told me that I needed blood work and like a trance I went directly to do just that.
The next day, September 27, I was replenished with this nervous, yet awakening feeling. After a decade of attending the school of life, I finally decided it was time to fill up my cup with some post-secondary. I had enrolled at Mount Royal University for Yoga Therapy, a two-year program, and Mac was so excited for me. He snapped a hilarious moment while I tied up my shoes... looking totally stunned about my very first day back to school. Looking back now... I laugh. I guess I am just not meant to go back to school... yet.
I arrived at the university, paid for parking, got to my classroom and started to settle in. We all introduced ourselves but something was off, I was terrified and that was not normal for me, I loved public speaking and I am definitely not shy. Anxiety had become an issue for me and soon, I would find out that all those anxious feelings were my bodies response to something much more complex but we're almost there...
Lunch break was about to start and I received a voicemail from my doctors clinic. They asked me to stop in as soon as possible. My mind raced. I never sensed urgency with any of my past medical concerns but this time it seemed important. Part of me thought, I likely have some bug I caught travelling or maybe I have a seasonal flu but it then crossed my mind... maybe this is serious. Maybe I should be concerned. And I drove myself to the clinic leaving my bags behind in the classroom with the spark of hope that it wasn't going to be a big deal.
I arrived at the clinic. Reception expected me and had me take a seat. I’d been going to this clinic for a few months now and had never seen such a full waiting room. I got nervous, stood up, paced for a moment, sat back down. I looked to the secretary as if she might give me a glance of hope that things were going to be okay but she kept her eyes on her computer.
Now my heart was pumping. I looked down the hall and could see the doctor motioning me to her room. I looked at the full waiting area and back again to the doctor and realized it must be serious. She sat me down and began to speak... All I really remember was... We had them take a second look at your blood work and they were able to confirm you have Leukemia. She began talking softly about what leukaemia was and what I needed to do next but I wasn't home. I was checked out. It’s like in the movies when the music gets louder and everything else becomes a drowned out muffle while the lead actor sits there, still in time.
I wasn't really sure what to say and I had no idea what leukaemia was and nothing made sense to me. Then I heard the word cancer and something about not driving. The doctor looked at me as if she was expecting another reaction, like maybe I should cry, but I didn't. I just felt confused.
We need someone to admit you into Foothills Hospital and it's important you have someone pick you up. Aaaand then, I began to cry, not because I wanted to but because I felt like I should.
And the questions started flooding my brain. I need to be in a hospital right now? This is serious enough I can't drive? Why can't I drive? I'm fine to drive. What about the stuff I left at school? What about school? I know I have to call Mac. But what about mom and dad? How do I tell them? What the fuck is happening. I'm really fine to drive. WTF, cancer? This isn't happening...
The doctor left the room to organize my arrival to Foothills Hospital and I sat there. Questions going a mile a minute until she came back and I dialed Mac's number. I told him the situation. Then gave the phone to the doctor so that she could clarify my muffled sob of an explanation. He was on his way and the doctor went back to sorting out my next move.
I felt like I sat in that room for hours. I remember hearing Mac's voice and I stepped out of the room. His eyes were red and I could tell he was as confused as me. Nothing made sense but we hung on to each other until it felt like it was time to leave. I took his hand and we walked out with a little post-it note of directions.
First, we drove to the school so I could awkwardly collect the belongings I should have taken in the first place and then we made our way home to pack my bag for an undetermined stay at the hospital. I didn't know what to pack or how long I needed to pack for. I just shoved a bag full of random shit and hoped for the best.
We got to the hospital and every ache in my body screamed the word 'cancer' making my tears flow uncontrollably. All I could do was hang on to Mac for support, holding his hand while we walked from, literally, the furthest parking spot possible to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. When we finally got there, we were again expected, and the words "choose hope" ominously glared at me from the unit clerks desk. We checked in to what I would soon be calling, unintentionally, the 'Hotel' for weeks to come(flight attendants, you get it). We were ushered to a seating area while they did their last cleaning touches to my room. The nurse ran over the bulletin-like agenda for the afternoon and the phrase I know this must be very overwhelming began to repeat through the rest of the night.
And it was. It was really fucking overwhelming. They got me into the room explained all their procedures and what steps they needed to take first. They would be taking samples of my bone marrow to be tested so they could find my specific type of Leukemia. These samples would determine the cocktail of therapy they would eventually conjure up for me. I won't get into the details of bone marrow extraction. I'll say it's unpleasant.
After the initial day of discovery and the highly climatic experience of being admitted into a cancer ward, things started to slow down a little. I spent the next five days in denial, visiting with friends, taking pain meds and enjoying the pleasures of warm blankets and daily smoothies. It really did feel like maybe it wasn't all so bad. I could carry on my merry way thinking this isn't happening and just enjoy what Unit 57 had to offer.
It was another 5 days before I got my diagnosis. I don't remember much about what was said. I was living in a fog and clearly delusional about the severity of my situation. Thankfully, Mac was there to receive all the information. Later, he would explain to me I had Biphenotype Acute Leukemia, meaning my marrow was busy not making one but two types of Leukemia cells. I learned interesting facts like only 2.5% of Leukaemia patients have my diagnosis. Thankfully, I was not going into this a pioneer. Brave souls before me had beaten this and went in genuinely... choosing hope.
The first day of treatment was busy. It involved a dose of chemotherapy that has a long name and gave me the same symptoms of going over zealous on beets. Some of you may get that reference, for the rest of you... Eat lots of beets and you’ll figure it out. The beet juice drug was followed by what I refer to as flower power, made from a Madagascar Periwinkle. An impressive drug responsible for killing cancer cells but also the reason my fingers tingle and I don't really feel my feet these days. The next treatment was tailored to my protocol to protect my brain from making any friends with the c-word. So I had a spinal tap and we shot some chemo up there too!
The following day was another dose of flower power and beet juice. On the third day, I got what one nurse elegantly described as the Atomic Bomb and I spent the next five days hooked up to an IV flushing my whole system with saline and an antidote. By day four of treatment, I was still living in my happy little fog but my subconscious started to surface and my body started making things pretty clear.
I laid in the bed feeling uncomfortable, a tightness pulled on my chest. I called the nurse in as the pain got stronger. They issued an ECG to measure my heart and everything checked out okay. Yet, I still had this grip tight around my chest. I took a deep breath but it only got tighter. Suddenly I lost control and couldn't breath, reality finally setting in. I wasn't okay and my body was connecting the dots to my mind. Nurses rushed from every angle before I could even comprehend I was having a panic attack. The oxygen was hooked up and cries escaped my lungs. I felt death hang on my chest and remind me of my immortality. I sat in that hurt for a while. I let it grip me. I let myself feel all that pain and I realized in that moment, I was not okay. That I needed to heal and that is when this really began to make sense.
The following days were intensely overwhelming, in a way that restored my soul. Everything I experienced was within that very moment. I had this sense of gratitude that was unimaginably tied to every experience of that day. Even my suffering was greeted by it. I would sometimes be washed over with laughter and in another moment swept into tears all because of gratitude. This wave started pouring in from every corner. My room filled with cards, photos, drawing, and art. I saw friends from years passed and even made some new ones all while recovering. One friend even started a MealTrain which helped support me and my family through the hardest days of treatment and the learning curve of daily hospital visits(once I was allowed to go home on ‘passes’). I started to accept the flow of emotions that I encountered at a moment by moment basis.
When I was finally cleared to go home on ‘passes’ I was both relieved but also scared. I had created this nest of security in my room. I felt like there was a sense of routine and the nurses even found a system that was managing my pain quite well. But I knew I had to leave, recovery would be better from home. I was neutropenic, which meant my immune system was non-existent and, well, hospitals are full of sick people so I needed to be at home. It was another overwhelming feeling leaving the hospital and I was the weakest I had ever been in my life. It felt strange to leave in that state.
My parents were camping in the living room at the time and stayed for a few days while I adjusted to home life. Mac impressed my parents(and me) with his attentiveness and intuition of my needs. When it was time for my parents to leave everyone was quite confident things were going to be okay.
I continued my treatment for a 29-day cycle. There were a few curveballs along the way which had me back in Unit 57 for a weekend. I got a chance to reunite with some of the nurses and meet some new ones. Despite the pain and morphine top ups, I still managed to smile along and have my heart warmed by more messages from friends and delicious home cooked meals.
Making my way home after this visit was a much easier transition. I would soon become well versed in moving in and out of the Foothills Hospital. Not exactly a proud statement but it is what it is.
Regardless of what happened the weeks to follow, “The Art of Balancing” has definitely had an evolution. Travel… Lifestyle… and Yoga all look different in my life now. I am beginning a new kind of art of balancing and for those of you who want to join me… I will be trying my best to open this blog as a forum to better understand that journey. I will be sharing my story and if energy permits, maybe I’ll even find a way to get a little creative too.
Thank you so much for reading! I still have so much more to share.
. Ayla . @missaylanova .