Friday, November 30, 2012

It's Not About the Snorkel

Sometimes it seems like everything that has happened was meant to be. Or rather, everything good that has occurred happened to prepare me for everything bad that was to come.

"OK, Laura, breathe in... And out. Now big breath in and hold." This was the mantra spoken over the microphone six times a day for five weeks. While I lay there as still as possible with my nose pinched tightly by a clamp, holding a one-time-use disposable snorkel between my teeth, I followed the instructions given by the voice to a tee - desperately trying not to swallow in between breathes, as that would cause my ears to pop, leaving me with uncomfortable be-popped ears until the day's treatments were finished.

Eighteen years ago I came to Toronto on an internship. I was 22 and extremely cynical with nothing more than an art degree to my name for credentials. My first week on the job a cute and slightly rumpled boy stumbled into the office and stuttered his way through a conversation with me. It was love at first site. A year later we were married and I was on my way to becoming a Canadian.

Over the years my Canadian boy has shared his love of the water with me. He taught me how to snorkel and eventually convinced this Texas girl that it is possible to swim in sub 30° C water without dying or losing limbs to frostbite. In 2009 I started a job that required occasional travel to Bermuda. Snorkeling and free diving became a near obsession. Every vacation since has involved snorkeling to some degree.

Twelve years ago after his father passed away I sought peace through practicing yoga. The near-stillness that the slow and controlled breathing brings to my mind has helped me during the most trying times. Even though I drift away from yoga from time to time, whenever I hit a stressful bump it always pulls me back in.

Seven weeks ago I was preparing for my radiation treatments. The beginning of the end of treatment. I asked my radiation oncologist if there were any trials that I might be eligible for. While there were no suitable trials, he did mention that they should probably use ABC breathing to avoid exposing my heart to radiation. You see, my cancer was in my left breast. Normally, during radiation treatment for left-sided breast cancer a small part of the heart is in the beam. This causes a small amount of damage to the heart and many patients will experience some symptoms due to the damage. However most patients are at least 20 years older than me - meaning that whatever symptoms they experience they will experience for fewer years than I (hopefully) would. ABC stands for Assisted Breath Control. The technique involves having the patient hold their breath while the radiation beam is on. This causes the heart to move out of the path of radiation. To assist the patient, a snorkel-like device is used and the end of the snorkel is plugged during the critical moments, making it impossible to breathe in or out until the radiation beam is off.

Before my planning CT scan I was taken into a small room with a desk and two chairs. On the desk was a computer and what looked like a table top mic stand. The technician unwrapped a plastic snorkel and attached it to the mic stand. "I'll ask you to breath in and then out. Then I'll ask you to breathe in again and this time you will hold your breath as long as you can." I don't like to brag, but it was almost a minute before I started to feel any discomfort. I figured that the goal was not to see how long you could hold your breath without passing out, so I signaled to him that I had reached my breath-holding limit. After my CT scan the senior technician asked me if I had done any yoga. Apparently the way that I breathe is very controlled compared to others.

It was that day that I realized how so many seemingly random events had come together to make my life just a little bit easier during this difficult period. Living in Canada, the cost of my health care is not an issue. My yoga practice has helped me to stay a little bit calmer through treatment and my training in pranayama (Sanskrit for breathing) made my daily radiation treatments almost meditative. The many snorkeling vacations that my husband and I have taken over the past years made the snorkel breathing and breath holding familiar and almost effortless. While I don't believe that all of these things happened for a reason, especially NOT the cancer, I am thankful that the things that I love were able to prepare me for the thing that I have truly hated.

1 comment:

  1. hi! I just had this procedure yesterday. I will start my treatment next thursday and I do agree with you how those events from the past seem to have prepared us for this current journey. I feel it like a dress rehearsal.
    I wish you well in your treatment and hope we can get in touch.

    sending positive wishes,