Surrounded by my herd, lifted by love ...
The date my surgeon chose to remove my breast couldn't have been more perfect.
It was World Elephant Day.
Wait … what??
(you’re reading that again, aren’t you?)
Yes, truly. The day I had a mastectomy just happened to be World Elephant Day – the annual event urging the preservation and protection of elephants.
What a wonderful, ‘warm-fuzzies’ coincidence this was for me. So very apt.
I love elephants, you see. I am in awe of the way they look out for one another, protecting their young and their injured, the moment danger lurks.
So, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realised I had my own elephant-like herd of caring, empathetic souls – my protective squad, my tribe, my home-team, my gang.
They learned of my distressing diagnosis even before I had mustered the courage to tell my mother, my children and my two older brothers. Much like fiercely protective elephants, my herd gathered 'round me, making me feel safe, cared for, and lifting my spirits with their tight hugs and their words of reassurance.
"If anyone can beat this, you can," they told me. "You have a warrior's spirit."
My herd is my Seido Karate ‘family’ – the karate-ka: people who learn and train in karate. While I waited for the result of the biopsy, I was too frightened to tell a soul out there in 'the real world,' for that would make it real. Instead, I went to our place of learning - the dojo. I'd gained my green belt just a few weeks earlier, so I was embarking on learning a whole new syllabus. In the dojo there was no space in my head to be thinking about anything other than karate.
In Japanese (the language we use in the dojo) there’s a word for it: mushin (pronounced moo-shin) – and it literally translates to ‘no mind’ or ‘empty mind.’ It’s the perfect ploy for pushing aside stress and anxiety.
But as each training session ended and we lined up to show our gratitude to our seniors, our teachers – connecting with one another with eye contact, shaking both their hands with ours and bowing, as we do, with respect and gratitude - my awful reality would come rushing back. I would consciously take big breaths and try to get to the end of the line of black belts without beginning to cry. I don't remember ever succeeding, especially once I'd received the biopsy's awful result.
Five days out from the surgery, one of our black belts, Senpai Bernie, created a ‘Secret Group’ on Facebook, adding the karate-ka who knew me, (though I had only been learning karate for 15 months). Giving its members just three days’ notice, she wrote:
“Dear Friends, sorry for the short notice I am hosting an afternoon on Sunday from 2pm - to offer love and support to Victoria who has very recently been diagnosed with breast cancer …. we will share a beautiful afternoon, with beautiful people so Victoria can take lots of warm fuzzy feelings into surgery with her. I know it is short notice but I hope you can come.”
They did! They brought food, flowers, gifts and cards, and their hugs. And they managed to keep me from noticing they were passing around a beautiful journal and writing in it for me; loving, positive and supportive words.
Most humbling of all, our Seido grand master, Hanshi Andy Barber - with his big, strong arm around me - spoke.
Two of our very senior black belts gave a mihi (prayer) and sang a waiata. All of this was hugely emotional for me, I cannot remember every precious word spoken, but I can still 'hear' Kyoshi Katie telling me: "When you're going in for surgery, Victoria, just know your Seido family is right there with you in spirit, lifting you up with love."
The Secret Group page became my noticeboard to keep my Seido family in the know; to show them I was feeling positive, determined (a.k.a bloody-minded), and had kept my sense of humour. But it also provided them with a place to post encouraging messages for me. My gratitude for social media couldn't have been greater! I went into surgery feeling those warm fuzzy feelings Senpai Bernie had hoped for, for me - and I felt I was indeed being lifted with love and positivity.
In a lovely turn of serendipity, my anaesthetist is one of my seniors in the dojo; a brown belt with whom I had recently been sparring. Now, here she was – brown-belt Katie, swapping her white karate gi for her blue doctor’s scrubs and a needle.
I had told her I wanted to say “Osu” just at that moment when she was sending me off into unconsciousness. (Osu is pronounced ‘ooss,’ much like puss, as in pussy-cat. It is the word we hear and say most, when we’re in the dojo. It is a sign of respect when we acknowledge and greet our seniors and each other. It means you’re paying attention, you’re mentally present and not thinking of anything else, you’re listening and following instruction and connecting with one another).
“Now would be a good time to say your ‘Osu!’ and count down from 10,” Katie prompted me, as she injected the back of my hand with anaesthetic. I remember saying that “Osu!” – firmly, strongly. I barely remember any counting. I also don’t remember waking in the recovery room, but apparently, “Osu” was the only word I offered each time the nurses spoke to me.
Ten days after the mastectomy and the removal of all the lymph-nodes in my armpit, we learned the cancer had remained 'contained' in the tumour. It had not spread. The nodes were clear. My elated husband couldn’t contain his joy. We were still in the surgeon’s office, but our Seido family knew we were receiving the pathologist’s findings that morning. While my surgeon examined her surgical-work, my husband hovered in the background, grinning from ear to ear as he peered at his ‘phone through tears. I later found he had typed just one word on the secret group’s page: “Clear!”
A month after the surgery, I began chemotherapy treatment. The concoction prescribed was a mix of chemicals that causes ‘total hair loss’ – and I had a lot of very long hair to lose! Friends who had been through it advised me to have my head shaved. "Don't leave it until you're waking up to find clumps of your hair on the pillow."
My mother and Bernie (Senpai Bernie) sat with me as I had my head professionally shaved. When I stood up, thinking we were about to leave, Bernie plonked herself in my chair.
“Right, my turn!” she said, grinning.
I cried (again).
That evening, we met at the dojo and trained for two hours. I had my first four-hour round of chemotherapy the next morning.
Two days later, Hanshi Andy 'phoned: "We want to raise funds for whatever you want, but make it something 'local' - something for our local community," he told me. "Do you feel well enough to come to the dojo tomorrow and tell everyone about it?"
It was Promotion Day - an event held every three or four months, when karate-ka grade, performing the karate they have learned, in the hope of gaining their next coloured belt or an advanced black-tip for their belt.
As always, the dojo was packed - families lining the edges of the dojo, ready to watch and cheer on the first group of graders - the white-belts who would be grading for the first time.
I couldn't see Hanshi Andy or Sei Shihan Jane - his wife. Strangely, there were very few senior black belts in the dojo. Someone ushered me to the back garden of the dojo - and there they were; the most senior black belts from dojos throughout the Nelson and Marlborough region, lining up to have their heads shaved! Hanshi was sitting on a chair, his hair fast falling to the cobbles as brown-belt Steve deftly shaved our Grand Master's head. Hanshi was speaking to the local newspaper photographer, who was recording his every word. Sei Shihan Stephen was next, then Jun Shihan Rona and Sensei Susie, and then, several brave young boys lined up. Steve handed me the electric shaver and let me loose on my husband's hair. Back inside the dojo, karate-ka - male and female - were still arriving, and I fought back tears yet again, seeing some had already shaved their heads.
Before the gradings began, I explained how I was having chemotherapy, but I was lucky enough to not be facing radiotherapy, as well. I wanted the funds raised to go towards airfares for the women who needed radiotherapy to travel to and from Wellington or Christchurch on the weekends between their treatments. Our city does not have a radiotherapy facility. If ever we win Lotto, that will change!
Over the following months, as I worked through my chemotherapy treatments each and every 21 days, Steve and his wife Meg (both brown belts) pushed forward with the fund-raising effort. They arranged a 'Shave for the Brave' afternoon, when karate-ka and some of their family members paid to have their heads shaved. One of our seniors, Senpai Mandy, decided making a donation herself to have her long locks removed was not enough. She sought sponsors in the week before the event and raised nearly $800.
My anaesthetist, brown-belt Katie rustled up plenty of financial support for having her head completely shaved, too - almost as close to the scalp as mine. She arranged for brown-belt Steve to come to her workplace - the hospital - and did it with an audience of surgeons and nurses and madly-clicking cameras. She raised well over $1000.
Meg and Steve also organised a women's 'Train for the Brave' event, especially for women who had never been inside a dojo. For $10 (or more, if they could give it) they could come to train alongside us. It was an hour of absolute joy. I felt the power and the love of 'the sisterhood.'
In all, our Seido karate community, its families and supporters lost a lot of hair, showed immense love and compassion - and raised over $5000. They did it with much enthusiasm, a lot of kiai (shouting during karate) and a lot of laughter, too. Noisy, powerful stuff - like a herd of bloomin' elephants.