Written by: Laura Flanagan, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
I remember sitting at my desk at my cherished job, working as a scientist and getting the dreaded call. One is perhaps never ready to hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ For most, the ‘c’ word is the most dreaded word in any language. Indeed, the amygdala part of my brain lit up. My heart raced and I felt dizzy. I barely had a moment to get out of the chair in my cubicle to find a private office or hallway to complete the call.
Fast forward. I now see how that event was the beginning of a new life. Prior to receiving the diagnosis, I spent almost all of my waking hours working both as a scientist, but also as a Yoga and Fitness instructor. I was teaching anywhere from 8 to 10 classes a week on top of my 40 hour per week job. I was also a marathon runner, having completed 2 Boston Marathons, 3 Pike’s Peak Marathons, among others. I continued my studies with Yamuna – the developer of Yamuna Body Rolling, which a form of ball therapy. At that time, the diagnosis of breast cancer felt like someone threw a stick in the spokes of my wheel, and I was nose-diving over a cliff.
Cancer is a challenging experience to go through. No one will truly understand unless they’ve been through it themselves. No one will feel so frightened, so sad, so lonely during this time, but you. Even the closest person to you – be it a spouse, partner, best friend, or sibling. Life goes on, and you can feel left on an island to deal with your emotions. These emotions can range from fear, anger, depression, and shame.
I know this because I have experienced every one of these. Now, seven years later, I find myself in Costa Rica with my horse, Socrates. The time between my diagnosis and now was filled with what I thought were ‘bucket list’ experiences. I traveled to Peru only six weeks after my double mastectomy. One year later, I found myself in India studying directly from the Gurus of my lineage – Krishnamacharya Yoga.
One year after that, I purchased my first horse thinking I was fulfilling the childhood dream which existed only as a remnant in the back of my mind. I traveled to Morocco, hoping to do volunteer work in an orphanage near Marrakesh. Through deep meditation, I discovered a new journey – opening an equine therapy retreat center in Costa Rica. It was a difficult year and a half researching, planning, selling my house, car, and quitting my job in the corporate world as a scientist. Add to that leaving my country to immerse myself in one where I do not speak the language.
All of the experiences I had post-breast cancer were preparing me, unknowingly, for the move. My travel to Peru with a friend took the fear out of international travel, which allowed me to book a solo trip to India the following year. That experience gave me the confidence to book my trip to Morocco to experience the culture and rich life there. Experiencing the different cultures and learning how people live so simply and almost with just the clothing on their backs allowed me to look at all of the possessions I owned but was not using. It took months of trips to Good Will, St. Vincent DePaul, and Hospice donation centers to offload my possessions in preparation for my move.
Today I am sitting in a tiny Tico home without indoor plumbing. My compost toilet is approximately 100 meters from home with an outdoor shower just next to it. It has been an incredible journey moving from the US to Costa Rica with a horse and three dogs. Since my first move to the Arenal Volcano region, I have moved three additional times in search of the ideal property to build the Socrates Center – a Center of Integrated Therapies including Yoga, Meditation, Yamuna Body Rolling, and Equine Therapy. Socrates and I have endured three microclimates in Costa Rica and finally landed in the mountains near the South Pacific. We currently live at 2600 ft elevation near one of the highest mountain peaks, Mount Chirripó.
Construction on a small (679 sq. ft) guest house was completed just this week – August 10, 2020. This guest house is fully equipped (yeah for indoor plumbing) and ready to accommodate retreat leaders. The intention is to build slowly on the 4.5 acres I have purchased with early retirement funds and add a main home and cabins for retreat attendees. In the meantime, the Socrates Center has an online platform supporting retreat leaders with their work until they can bring clients to Costa Rica when travel restrictions are released and, hopefully, when more of the construction is complete. The online platform is called the Socrates Academy and includes offerings from my partners in Ayurveda, Meditation, Astrology, and others.
Today I am offering online support for cancer survivors and building specific Yoga and Meditation programs for them—this is a cancer survivor support group where we can share stories and help one another.
Some nuggets of helpful advice for anyone diagnosed with cancer include the following:
1. Ask for help. You are not alone. Reach out to friends, family, and support groups. It is important not to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or burdened. If you are going through treatment, don’t hesitate to ask them to clean, cook, and run errands for you. You do not need to go through it alone, and it makes people feel a sense of purpose. Most people want to help, and including them in your recovery plan allows them to feel that they are part of your journey. Make sure you choose friends and family who are supportive and will not give you unwanted advice. They should acknowledge your feelings without being judgmental. They should not tell you how you should feel or what you should do. If anyone in your life seems unsupportive despite their best intentions, do not be afraid to tell them that what they are doing is not ok. You can do so with compassion, and they should not be offended.
2. Find time for yourself daily. Whether it is to meditate, take a walk in nature, or gift yourself with a massage or a day at the spa. Self-care is not selfish.
3. Journal. Writing about how you are feeling and expressing on paper is a very powerful means of expression and offers great relief. It is also a nice way to track your progress through your journey.
4. Stay active. Exercise daily, whether it is a short 20 min yoga practice, a walk in the park, or taking on an online fitness class from the comfort of your home. Exercise is not only important to prevent cancer recurrence, but it is known to release hormones that improve your mood.
5. Volunteer. Become part of a community. When you give in such a way, it will come back to you two-fold if not more. I was a volunteer Yoga instructor for a Hospice center near my workplace, and I will not forget how much support I received from the staff when I was diagnosed.
Laura Flanagan MS, RYT, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Laura Flanagan is a Scientist by education and career, but she recently left her corporate job and moved to Costa Rica with her horse to open and Equine Therapy Center. Concurrently with her career as a scientist, she has been teaching Yoga and Meditation for over 18 years. Laura is a Yoga Instructor, Yamuna Body Rolling Instructor, Meditation Teacher, and Director of the Socrates Center in Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica. She has helped thousands of clients with physical pain through her certification with Yamuna who uses a form of small ball therapy. She has used her Yoga, Body Rolling, and Meditation practices to assist in her own recovery from breast cancer.