"You may have cancer."
That's the absolute last thing you want to hear when you're only 19 years old, or any age really. In my sophomore year at Syracuse University, I had a persistent cough. My mother begged me to visit a doctor, so I caved and paid the school's clinic a visit. An x-ray and an MRI later, the general practitioner discovered a mass in my lung.
After visiting two doctors, undergoing three biopsies, and spending two long weeks waiting for undetermined pathology results, a surgeon in Florida cancelled my already-scheduled surgery based on how rare my case was and, instead, referred me to a tertiary hospital. My parents and I travelled from Florida to Alabama to meet the man who would later save my life: Robert Cerfolio, a thoracic surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Within a week, he removed two thirds of my left lung. My tumor, which I named Hefty Helga (the painkillers clearly kicked in then), was the size of a cantaloupe and thankfully benign (WOOOO!).
I won't sugarcoat the aftermath. I spent 12 days in ICU coping with the worst nightmare ever. Luckily, the nurses at UAB were compassionate and caring. Southern hospitality is a real thing, y'all! Recovery was rough, but that may even be an understatement. The day after surgery reminded me of being a toddler, learning how to live from scratch. I had to teach myself how to walk and breathe again.
In life, it's so easy to take all the little things for granted. After being confined by the same four white walls for weeks, I left the hospital and welcomed fresh air back into my lungs. My first breath was long, sweet, and filling. I was completely and totally smitten by the flow of pure oxygen running through my nostrils and lungs. In and out.
In the first year of recovery, I found solace in yoga. Calming your nerves is easier said than done. Once a month, I had terrible panic attacks that numbed all feeling in my legs, arms, and face. Trying to recognize the triggers and manage this anxiety by myself was extremely difficult. Through my yoga practice, I learned the art of controlled breathing and the powerful influence of positive thoughts. It was the perfect approach to gradually regaining control of my body and becoming conscious of my breath. At the end of every practice, I closed my eyes and whispered, "Look at what you're capable of." (Yes, I was talking to my lungs. Don't judge.) Because it's truly amazing.
Two years after surgery, running served the same purpose. With two fully functioning lungs, I ran one mile in 12 minutes. Today, with one and one-third lungs, it takes me 15. I hate running—I really do, because my short, baby legs take me no where (sometimes I actually feel like I'm running backwards). But cardio has tremendously helped re-expanding my lungs to function as though nothing ever happened.
I feel liberated with every single inhale and exhale, whether I'm sprinting or completing a Vinyasa flow. I will admit, there's always a voice at the back of my head saying, "Just quit, already. You don't need this." Sitting on the couch, watching Chopped and stuffing my face with a bowl of popcorn is enticing, but I'd much rather surprise myself by challenging my lung capacity. Every time I tie my laces and hit the road, I get lost in rhythm of my breath. It's simply beautiful.
Three years ago, I didn't think I'd live to see 2014—far less for 2015. I was given a second chance at life, and I am determined to continue the fight I started the day I found Hefty Helga. I will fight for those faltered and defeated by their illnesses, and I will most definitely fight for deeper, longer, filling breaths.
I promise you this: By next summer, I will run my first half-marathon, and if all goes well, I will continue training for a marathon. Yes, you heard me—26.2 miles with only one and one-third lungs. If I can do it, you can too. Please, join me on my journey.
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