by Kelsey Harper
While living and working in Afghanistan, Melanie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She now bravely advocates for community by openly sharing her experiences, and teaches through the healing powers of yoga.
“Ever since I passed this beautiful field in my neighborhood, I thought, I want to dance there,” she shared on Instagram earlier this year. “When I woke up this morning, I thought, today is the day. It was such a beautiful morning, the birds were singing, the sun was shining.”
“Why would I wait for a day to be better than today?”
The authenticity of her impromptu dance is only exceeded by the authenticity of her spirit.
“This dance has zero choreography,” Melanie explained. “It's a bit embarrassing actually for anyone who knows hula. I am stiff, I don't have my pa'u [hula skirt], but I wanted to move and dance with my hair down, my feet touching the ground, and my lungs filled with fresh air. So, I did just that. I moved with whatever came to mind and let my body dance.”
With an ever-evolving perspective that is shaped at the intersection of passion and life experiences, her life-view is made more pronounced by her love of yoga and her cancer journey.
“I first began teaching yoga while living and working in Afghanistan at a military base,” Melanie shares. “The fitness classes on base are taught by volunteers. So, if nobody volunteers to teach a class, the class can’t continue. I didn’t want to see the yoga class stop at the base I was at, so I became a volunteer yoga teacher even though I had no prior experience.”
“I Googled yoga sequences and watched a lot of YouTube videos to get started,” she continues. “I found myself teaching yoga to NATO military members and civilians several times a week, and discovered that I really enjoyed it.”
Seeing military members experience the benefits of yoga for themselves had a transformative impact on Melanie, who then sought to become a certified instructor. The immersive experience would change her in more ways than she expected.
“My yoga teacher training was in Thailand at Vikasa Yoga,” she explains. “For about a month, I was doing yoga at least 4 hours a day and eating very clean.”
“I felt so strong and healthy, yet ironically, it was also at this time I unknowingly had breast cancer. I was aware of a lump in my right breast, but could not get a biopsy on it until several months later in Dubai.”
“I was back in Afghanistan when I received the news, I had breast cancer.”
“It was hard to believe that despite being so healthy and young, I could have cancer," Melanie says. "I didn’t know what this meant for me, my job, and my future.”
She returned to the U.S. and sought treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Fortunately, despite the delayed diagnosis, Melanie’s cancer was caught early, at Stage I. She opted for a unilateral mastectomy, where one breast is removed and has so far been cancer-free ever since.
“I was aware of two options for reconstruction after my mastectomy: implants or natural tissue reconstruction,” she explains. “I decided I wanted natural tissue reconstruction because I felt that was the best fit for my body and lifestyle.”
“The type of reconstruction a woman has after a mastectomy is a personal decision that should be made by the patient because it is her body and she is the one that will live with the reconstruction,” she asserts. “I hope that all patients have all options communicated to them.”
This, unfortunately, is not always the case. Melanie was initially told that she wasn’t a candidate for natural reconstruction because she was too thin, only later to be made aware through a second opinion of a procedure called a PAP flap, where skin is taken from the back of the upper thigh as an alternative to the abdominal area.
“My experience with a PAP flap spanned 10 months,” she explains. “It's a long process, but I am happy with the results. I love my new breast. It is soft, warm, and does not require any maintenance.”
The reconstruction process was made longer by two unplanned surgeries, and her breasts are asymmetrical – made more so by post-surgery fat absorption and fat necrosis, a benign byproduct of the fat grafting process used in Melanie’s reconstruction. The journey inspired her to share her experiences openly with the goal of helping other young women, despite the personal discomfort that came with feeling so vulnerable.
“I [had] avoided social media my entire life,” says Melanie. “I joined Instagram so I could share my story with others in case it may help someone in their journey with breast cancer, yoga, and with life.”
“So, I went from having no account to posting pictures of my breasts and butt on my feed for the entire world to see. It has been quite uncomfortable for me to be so public about myself, but being on Instagram has connected me to so many amazing people, especially within the breast cancer and yoga communities, and for that, I am so grateful.”
Photos: Robert Sturman
More than the breast surgery, Melanie’s recovery from the PAP flap procedure was extensive. It was nearly impossible to bend or sit, so regaining the strength and flexibility needed to return to yoga would take patience and discipline.
“It took a year to get cleared to return to work, and three months [later] I began teaching yoga again in Afghanistan,” she explains. “This was a major milestone for me.”
“I love to teach yoga in Afghanistan because I feel like I can give something back to the base community, and I know that it helps in this austere environment. I hope to always teach military members and veterans, yoga.”
In addition to receiving the proper medical care, Melanie is a student of, and advocate for, alternative ways to keep herself healthy and strong – yoga among them.
“I know the power of yoga, and that it can heal and strengthen people,” she says. “I have felt this personally myself during my recovery process, and I want to share yoga, and its healing benefits, with others.”
“Yoga, breathwork, and meditation have been major tools I used to help me handle my unexpected cancer diagnosis and the rapid sequence of events that happened thereafter,” she continues. “Yoga has raised my [connection to] my mind, body, breath, and has helped me accept the permanent changes to my body post-mastectomy.”
“[It] continues to help me in my survivorship stage as it improves my flexibility and strength after my surgeries, and helps quiet my mind when I go in for scans and fears of recurrence hit me.”
While Melanie has been cancer-free since her mastectomy, the possibility for cancer to return is real. Diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, she has a 30% chance of developing metastatic breast cancer in her lifetime. In addition to lifestyle changes that aid prevention, she is in the midst of a ten-year regimen taking a hormone-blocking medication called Tamoxifen.
“As a breast cancer survivor, I always have to live with the possibility of recurrence,” she says. “If I am honest about how this makes me feel, it scares me, and I want to do all I can to prevent it. I want to live a long and healthy life. Like everyone, I have goals and things I want to do for years to come.”
At the turn of the new year, Melanie sought to bring new intentions into 2020, selecting a word that would help her stay accountable to those intentions. Her choice of ‘thrive’ builds on 2018’s ‘grateful’ and ‘recovery’ in 2019.
“The dictionary definition of this verb is to flourish, grow, and prosper. I want to thrive in all areas of my life,” she proclaimed in January. “If I thrive, then I am a thriver.”
Despite all of the challenges that 2020 has bought to bear, Melanie has remained true to her intentions.
“I am praying, manifesting, meditating, however you want to call it, I'm doing it all.”
“There is so much going on right now: global pandemic, Black Lives Matter and police brutality, recession,” she said at the height of national intensity in June. “So many feels, so much uncertainty. I am hopeful for the best possible outcome for everything.”
“As a cancer survivor I will tell you, there's [still] no better time to live your life and follow your passions than now,” she continued.
“So here I am.”
Yoga remains at the center of Melanie’s holistic approach to life and helps her manage the complex emotions that come with it.
“I have felt so many emotions this year,” she shares. “My yoga practice has taught me to acknowledge my emotions, and let them flow through me, rather than ignore them.”
“The beauty of feeling emotions is they can prompt us to action and catalyze change, personally and externally.”
In this spirit, Melanie, a woman of color, launched Sun Salutations in April, a new business venture that brings together some of her deepest passions.
“Sun Salutations is a yoga greeting card company that features beautiful and inspiring images that highlight the diversity and inclusivity of yoga,” she announced at the time of launch. “Some communities these cards feature include the military, first responders, cancer survivors, amputees, and people of color.”
“After a year of working on this project, I am about to launch in the midst of a global recession and pandemic,” she continued. “Still, I believe these yoga greeting cards can be used to inspire and help keep people connected.”
Waiting for a better time is no longer something Melanie does.
“Something cancer has taught me is that I no longer want to wait for a better time or situation to do things I want to do,” she shares. “Tomorrow is never promised. Life is precious so I want to live my life and do the things I want to do now rather than wait until later.”
The beauty of living and being present in the moment; genuinely true to your emotions, your passions, and your intentions is are gifts that Melanie brings to the community of people that she touches. It’s no surprise that yoga has become a vehicle for connection.
“Yoga has helped me mentally and physically go through and heal during my cancer journey,” she says. “[It] has become part of my life, and I love sharing the practice with others.”
Yoga came full circle when Melanie had the opportunity to lead a virtual yoga class for breast cancer community organization, The Breasties, one of her breast cancer support groups. In addition to teaching yoga to military service members, she had a desire to teach yoga to the breast cancer community because of how much yoga helped her during her cancer recovery.
“My heart is filled with gratitude for how the universe/God looks out for us,” she says. “I am grateful to all of those who came to the yoga classes I taught in Afghanistan and inspired me to want to get yoga certified. I am grateful to Vikasa Yoga Retreats and for the wonderful experience it was for me. I am grateful for The Breasties, and for the vision and leadership of the women that founded the organization; they have created an international community for young breast cancer survivors.”
“I am grateful for all of those that have encouraged me in my yoga and cancer journey.”
It’s this sense of community that helps Melanie stay connected to her inner strength and never feel alone. She was powerfully reminded of this during a month-long solo trip to Bali when a friend sent her a Christmas gift and card with a familiar print.
“I was deeply touched for many reasons,” Melanie shares. “What my friend didn't know was, the exact picture [on the front of the card] was hanging on the wall in the furnished room I rented for a year in New York while recovery from my mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries.”
The print is called ‘She Will Find What Is Lost’ by artist Brian Kershisnik.
“I remember looking at it hanging on the wall thinking that I was not alone in this journey, and many people were helping me - some I may not even know.”
ACTIIVST has partnered with The Breasties on an exclusive collection, and we are donating 100% of the proceeds to support their mission to empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancer.
Proceeds from every ACTIIVST purchase supports cause-based and nonprofit organizations with a focus on equality, education, and physical and mental health. To learn more, click here.