I’ll never forget the December day when I first met with Luna Yatsula in an Ottawa coffee shop. There was something grave about her drawn face and weakened physical presence. Yet there was so much light in her eyes.
Moving gingerly beside a mug of steaming tea, she cheerfully agreed to write the piece and to pose for photographs.
While we worked together, Luna emitted only positive energy. The swelling in her stomach had subsided and she felt well enough to schedule a belly dancing workshop for January 15. But it wasn’t to be. We were finalizing her article when she stopped responding to my e-mails. She died on January 11 after slipping into a coma.
In the final note she wrote to me on December 29, Luna sounded so alive, so determined. She reminded me to send her Guerilla contributor honorarium as well as copies of the photos we’d taken:
” I will be putting the $50 towards the cancer foundation I started. And the pics, well I would like a souvenir.”
First there was sheer terror, fear, panic… a sense of utter desperation that was tight and almost physical, like being in a very, very tight grip. Like the coils of some gigantic snake squeezing the breath out of me. There was never the calmness, the “at peace” feeling that we take for granted as a normal state of being. That’s what it was like when I was told: “You have five or maybe six months to live. You will die and there is nothing that can be done.” For many weeks and months after that moment, I felt like I was already dead.
Everything was so unreal, so intangible, so much like dust…dissolving. Food had no taste, music could not penetrate me. People, places, everything felt like it was just an illusion. And sleep… sleep simply never came. Only when my body could no longer physically hold out did my eyes close—and even then it was no rest, no relief. Just bad dreams and a black hopeless void.
Angel or guru or magician
At first I felt like some tiny creature pitted against this huge inevitable, unbeatable foe. A pathetic little David against a Goliath. Cancer seemed like my own Mount Everest that could only ever be conquered through some great magic. Still, this was my only goal. My only reason for living was to conquer cancer.
I felt that if I could find a way to “beat this” (what that meant exactly, I wasn’t sure), it would mean that I had accomplished the impossible, had become an elevated or illuminated being, been visited by an angel or guru or magician. Instead I have learned something else: that the greatest medicine on earth, the greatest balm, is time. Just time.
I was originally diagnosed with cancer in January 2003, but after surgery I was pronounced “clear,” so I went out and restarted my life, including having a baby. The new cancer was diagnosed when I was eight months pregnant. My six-month death sentence came down when the baby was a week old.
I will not lie: I am only 34 years old, I have a 16-month-old baby boy. If there is any way for the cancer to just be gone, I would love that. I would like a few more years on this planet. I feel I still have things to do, people to meet, places to see. And I want to better prepare for death.
That’s why I used to get so upset with all the well-intentioned but ineffective things people would say. Things like: “Even if you don’t get cured, there are many types of healing.” I didn’t want to hear it. I now realize those well-intentioned people were right.
Calm and peacefulness
Regardless of what happens from here, having arrived at a point where I can actually draw enjoyment from this new cancer-touched reality—and having found again that sense of calm and peacefulness that most of us call normal—this is in itself a way of beating cancer.
Death is inevitable—the one thing that will happen to all of us—yet somehow we live in utter denial of it. We shove it in a corner, don’t look at it or talk about it until we are forced to, or until we are sick or weak or have an accident. Instead we should be taking time when we are healthy happy and in a good state of mind to deal with this reality, to accept it to prepare for it.
I can verify that accepting death as a part of life—truly accepting and embracing it—really does set you free. While I don’t feel I have completed all the spiritual work needed to be completely comfortable with death (and let me add that having a child sure does make you more bound to the chains of life), I feel that releasing our tight grip on life is the path we need to take. Yoga and meditation can be invaluable for gaining this insight. So can art and creativity
In my case, when given my death sentence (the one I have outlived by a year already), I simply walked away from my dancing and teaching. It all seemed so meaningless. But this was the worst thing to have done. My state of mind completely changed when I got back to dancing and putting shows together, doing what brought me joy and took my mind to a positive place.
Although my life had become a mission to cure myself, one day I sat down and said: “Luna, accept it. You have an illness that may kill you. You have a huge nasty tumour that affects everything from your physical comfort to your ability to dance and teach to your freedom to dress how you please. So, deal with it. Create and be the artist that you are.”
I determined that what I could change, I would change. And the obstacles I had to live with, I would work around. I could no longer dance, so I began to choreograph others, to produce and direct shows. My day was shortened to the six productive and pain-free hours that my medication allowed. I adopted a vegetarian, mostly raw food diet with lots of oxygen and vitamins. I accepted all this as not a temporary thing, but my new lifestyle.
Most importantly, I changed mentality from “when I’m cured” to “I have a life now.” I decided to live, as they say in yoga, in the present conscious moment.
If I can share anything to help anyone out there, it is this: Do not stay in a terror-ridden place. Immerse yourself in creativity even if it has to be completely altered. Don’t hide death away in the corner and don’t wear it as blinkers, either. Look at it, confront what frightens you most, then let tomorrow bring what it will bring.
Dancing may save my life
Knock on wood (I am superstitious after all), because following a year-and-a-half of trying every alternative treatment under the sun (and some mainstream stuff, too), my tumour has not grown in the past two months. This I believe is the first step towards shrinking it. Also, my huge belly—it once looked as if I was 10-months pregnant due to swelling and fluid build up—has reduced in size dramatically in recent weeks!
The doctors do not understand this positive change, but I feel it can only be one of two things (or perhaps both): the effects of a strange new alternative medicine I started taking in September; or a return to my identity as a dancer and teacher and the mental shift that came with it. Who knows, maybe dancing will save my life? In some ways, it already has.
Luna Yatsula recently launched a foundation in support of people with adrenal cancer and their families.
[Thank you http://vintage.getguerilla.com/issue7/luna/index.html)