By Dawn Hopkins, Inspiritus Yoga
“And just as the Phoenix rose from the ashes, she too will rise.
Returning from the flames, clothed in nothing but her strength, more beautiful than ever before.”
D-Day (Diagnosis Day)
It was Valentine’s Day – February 14, 2018. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in
the process of preparing for a yoga teacher training immersion that would begin later
that day and I got “the call” – the call that NOBODY ever wants to receive EVER.
I had gone in for a routine mammogram and got the call that they needed additional
imaging as soon as possible. So, they brought me in for a 3D mammogram where they
discovered “microcalcifications” scattered throughout my left breast. In order to
determine if it was malignant, they sent me for a stereotactic needle biopsy where they
extracted samples in the area of concern. It was a difficult and painful procedure, but a
necessary one. I prayed and breathed through it, and asked God for the best possible
My family physician called me the next day and delivered the news that I had DCIS –
Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. She encouraged me that it was the best type of breast cancer
to get and that they found it early. She provided me the names of a few breast surgeons
to call and assured me that I would be fine. I remember nothing after that. In fact, her
voice became like the telephone voice in Charlie Brown. A muffled “Blah blah blah” was
all I heard. The walls closed in as I struggled to comprehend what I was hearing. I
pulled the car over and prayed, breathless from the news.
To say that I was in shock was an understatement. My brain went down the “what if”
rabbit hole in every direction. You see, my husband Bob lost his first wife Sandy to
ovarian cancer in 2013, leaving him and their two daughters behind. As I prayed, I was
reminded that BOTH of my grandmothers had overcome breast cancer and had lived to be 99 and 101 years old. I resolved at that moment that my story would be no different.
But, I had to tell Bob. I was not afraid of the cancer. I was terrified about how he and the girls were going to take the news. I was friends with Bob and Sandy at the time that she got sick, and I remembered all too well how difficult that journey had been for him and the girls, who were now my husband and stepdaughters.
When I got home, I told Bob the news with the most positive spin I could put on it. God reminded me to tell him, “I am not Sandy. It’s not ovarian cancer. It’s early and it’s
treatable. I’m going to be okay. God’s got this!”
His reaction was as you might expect – a whole lot of tears, a healthy dose of anger,
followed by, “We need to pray.” I told my son and daughter, and he told his two
daughters. Everyone handled it okay except for his youngest. Delaney had been
adopted by Bob and Sandy from China when she was a baby. She had already lost two
moms and was terrified of losing another. I remember one night laying in bed with her
while she cried. My diagnosis had triggered that memory and the trauma of losing the
mom who raised her. I vowed again that my story would be different.
We began the search for a surgeon. Our first calls were to two of our friends who are
family physicians, and both of them recommended Dr. Hernandez. The third call was to
my friend Diane who had been down this road just six months prior. Her doctor was
none other than Dr. Hernandez. God revealed the path I was to take, and I scheduled
an appointment with him.
I invited our friend Wendy to join us at my first visit with Dr. Hernandez. She was a two-time breast cancer survivor herself and I knew she would know what questions to ask. I remember watching her navigate her own cancer journey with the strength and faith of a warrior. She had also walked alongside Bob and Sandy through their journey with ovarian cancer five years before. I was so thankful she was there, asking questions and taking notes, while my head spun dizzy from all of the information.
At our appointment, Dr. Hernandez was so caring and compassionate. He explained
that DCIS is the best possible breast cancer to get and that it was fully treatable.
Because of the size and the dispersement pattern of the DCIS, a lumpectomy would not
be an option for me. So I was looking at a mastectomy of the left breast and he didn’t
think was going to be able to spare my left nipple either. He also mentioned that there
was a 30-40% chance that cancer would eventually appear on the right breast, so I
immediately opted for a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction so I wouldn’t have to
worry. Strangely, it was an easy decision for me, and it later proved to be God-inspired
for sure. The good news was that if all went well and the pathology came back
favorably, that surgery might be all that I would require with no treatment following
surgery. So we began praying for this scenario, along with a large group of prayer
Soon after my visit with Dr. Hernandez, I went to see Dr. Finkel, the reconstructive
surgeon recommended by Dr. Hernandez who had also done the reconstruction for my
friend Diane. I liked her immediately. She was thorough, direct, tough, and a little bit
sassy. We made decisions regarding the implants and she was confident she would be
able to do it at the same time as my mastectomy so I wouldn’t require a second surgery.
Since they didn’t think my nipple could be spared, she shared that some people get 3D
tattoos of a nipple and areola. Other people put a tattoo over the area to cover up the scar and where the missing nipple would be. So I started looking for breast tattoos to
cover my former nipple area and my left breast. More on this later…
“Love Your Cancer”
At first, I wanted to run away and hide. I battled with fear. I held it in, determined not to let anyone see it. I decided I was going to be a warrior and “kick cancer’s butt.” I
vacillated in these two realms – kicking butt and running and hiding. Fight or flight. As a yoga instructor and yoga therapist, I KNEW that my body could not properly heal in a state of fight or flight where I was at war with my own body. I also knew that “whatever we resist persists” – that resistance creates more resistance. And, I knew that whatever we focus on expands and that by focusing on my cancer, I was only giving it more power. But, I didn’t know how to end the struggle.
One day, after one of my yoga classes, a dear friend and one of my first yoga students
(who is a three-time cancer survivor) said to me, “Love your cancer, Dawn.” It was like
the heavens opened up to deliver me a message and it changed EVERYTHING.
Because love changes everything. I had an ah-ha moment that changed me from the
inside-out and changed the way I felt about my cancer. I started looking for opportunities to be grateful and the gifts and blessings along the way. And let me tell you, there were more than I could recount here! I started asking the cancer what it had to teach me, knowing that pain can be one of our greatest teachers if we allow it to be. I decided to love my cancer and love myself through it.
Shortly after that, Bob and I were watching the Winter Olympics and they did a little
back story on one of the athletes. For whatever reason, the story touched me and I
started bawling like a baby. Finally, the tears started flowing and I was feeling my
emotions, rather than holding it all in and trying to be strong. Bob and I cried and held
each other, and then we prayed. I felt such a relief and I could finally breathe again.
Surgery and Treatment
My surgery took place on March 15, 2018 just two days before St. Patrick’s Day (which
also happens to be the anniversary of my first date with Bob). My doctor anticipated that the surgery would take about three and a half hours. He added that upon closer review of my imaging, he believed he would be able to spare my nipple; I was so happy to hear that news and knew God was answering my prayer! My friends and family prayed over me, and I drifted off to “sleep,” feeling at peace and confident that all would go well.
My surgery only took 2 1/2 due to the skill and precision of my amazing surgeons, my
nipple was spared, and everything went off without a hitch.
After my pathology came back, I had a follow-up appointment with my doctor. He shared with me that the cancer was not HER-2 positive, it was not invasive, and it
had not spread to my lymph nodes. Without going into a bunch of detail on what that all means, it meant that I would not need radiation or chemotherapy. More answers to
prayer! But, there was something else Dr. Hernandez told me. I remember vividly that
he said, “You’re very lucky to have opted to do a bilateral mastectomy, young lady.”
After receiving the pathology report, they discovered that I had an ADH (Atypical DuctalmHyperplasia) on the right breast – a precancerous condition that was likely to become lobular cancer later. As he put it, “You dodged a bullet. We would have been dealing with cancer in the right breast within a year or two.”
To say that I KNEW I was supposed to have the right breast removed was an
understatement. Every fiber of my being felt resolved to do the bilateral mastectomy,
and to find out that I had a pre-cancerous condition on the right only affirmed that God was watching over me and had nudged me in that direction.
I went and saw the medical oncologist upon the request of my surgeon to confirm what
he suspected, and she agreed that no radiation or chemo would be needed. They told
me that they got it early and they got it all. I would just need to go for follow-up check-ups every 6 months. In addition, my BRCA genetic testing had come back negative,
which meant I wouldn’t need to worry about the possibility of developing other female
Throughout my recovery, we were inundated with cards, texts, phone calls, meals,
flowers, gifts, and shows of support. I could tangibly feel God’s love all around me
through the love and support of family and friends…and perfect strangers along the
way. I fully experienced the healing power of His mighty love. I was also given the
opportunity to “pay it forward” with several of my friends who developed breast cancer
after me. I wholeheartedly believe that our misery can become our ministry and that
God can repurpose our pain if we allow it. And when we put our pain into service to
others, it can help lift us out of our own circumstances. I found that to be one of the
beautiful gifts I received through my journey with breast cancer.
The Next Chapter
Following my surgery, my reconstructive surgeon and my medical oncologist continued
to follow me every six months. I went for an ultrasound after the first six months and
everything looked good. I had blood drawn every six months, and each time, everything
was fine. My reconstructive surgeon would look at my incisions and check me every six
months as well, and again, no issues whatsoever. After a few years of this, it just felt like
a formality. I believed wholeheartedly that the cancer was gone and it would never
return. I honestly didn’t give it a second thought.
At my three-year visit, my reconstructive surgeon ordered an MRI. The report revealed
an area of concern in the vicinity of my original cancer and they ordered additional
imaging to investigate. I tried not to worry, but my brain spun and started playing out
On August 20, 2021, I went in for an ultrasound and mammogram. The ultrasound didn’t show anything and the initial mammography didn’t either. They told me they would just follow up with me in six months. As I was getting dressed, the radiology tech knocked on the door and told me to put the gown back on because they wanted to take more images. The radiologist directed her on where to take the images and they kept at it until she found what she was looking for. Let me tell you that this was no easy feat because I have almost no tissue and there were implants in the way. Sure enough, the area she was concerned about revealed something suspicious. The radiologist showed me the images and they looked just like the images they had taken when I was
diagnosed with DCIS.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut. My first reaction was, “Oh crap!” She nodded
her head in compassion and understanding. She mentioned that it could be fatty
necrosis (surgical changes) or calcifications, but they couldn’t be sure without a biopsy.
She also mentioned that she had a “hunch” and had to follow it. It was difficult to find
because it was in a “blind spot” near the sternum, behind the implant at the chest wall.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was God’s intervention. The “hunch”, persisted until she found it – in a blindspot no less! All of this made me realize that God was watching over me and had guided the radiologist to the exact spot where this was hiding. She told me that she would get with my doctors and let them know what was going on and they would take it from there, but I likely wouldn’t hear from them until Monday.
Near the end of the day, Dr. Hernandez called me and confirmed what the radiologist
had said. He told me not to worry because even if it was the “worst case”, DCIS is fully
treatable and it was microscopic in size. Being the compassionate person he is, he told
me he wanted to call me to set my mind at ease so I wouldn’t worry all weekend about
it. I met with him the following Monday and we scheduled a surgical biopsy for
September 9. He explained that he would remove the affected tissue and then have
pathology review it so we would know exactly what we were dealing with.
On September 9, I had a biopsy. It was a two-part procedure where I had to go to the
breast imaging center first in order for them to place a “marker” using mammography to guide them to the affected area so Dr. Hernandez would know where to cut. This was
painful and complicated because it was so difficult to find. After they placed the
“marker”, I went straight to the surgery center for them to perform the biopsy. That was
fast and relatively easy.
By the end of the next day, Dr. Hernandez called me with the preliminary results, again
so I wouldn’t have to wonder all weekend long. Much to his (and my) surprise, they
found Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC), which he called a “second primary cancer”
because it was new and different than my first diagnosis of DCIS. I never knew that was possible after a bilateral mastectomy, but when they spare the skin and nipple (which they did with me), some tissue remains where a recurrence or new cancer can appear. He said we would know the final pathology report on Monday and to just sit tight and wait.
My heart sank. My brain spun. I was breathless. Bob and I just stared at each other
without words. Again? How? Why? Now what? My prayers were emotional and erratic…and a bit angry if I’m honest. But the good thing is that I was praying… The weekend went by SO slowly. Bob and I literally busied ourselves to pass the time and keep our minds off of everything. I made calls to friends who had been through this, and found some comfort in knowing they were all doing well. I tried NOT to focus on the fact that my friend Diane, who had walked me through my first cancer journey, had passed away from a metastasis of this same type of cancer just two years prior. God reminded me that every person’s journey is different, and to hold onto hope and trust in Him.
We received the final pathology report the following Monday as promised. Dr.
Hernandez explained that even though the margins (the space between the cancerous
tissue and the healthy tissue) were fine, they were recommending another surgery
to remove more tissue at the “capsule” (the scar tissue around the implant) just to be
safe. He also needed to do a sentinel biopsy of my lymph nodes to make sure the
cancer hadn’t spread. He also mentioned that because it was an invasive cancer, radiation would likely be required following surgery.
On September 21, I underwent a partial mastectomy and a sentinel biopsy. Everything
went smoothly and there were no surprises. That Friday, Dr. Hernandez called to share
the good news that the cancer had NOT spread to the lymph nodes so I wouldn’t have
to worry all weekend. Praise God! The following week, I met with all of the doctors on
my team to go over the pathology report and flesh out a treatment plan.
I began radiation on November 1 which was supposed to last six weeks. Unfortunately, I
was diagnosed with COVID-19 after sharing my story at a breast cancer event at a church in Chandler, AZ just 4 days into my treatment. Oh, the irony! So, I had to take some time off. I had my last radiation treatment on December 20. I was so grateful to have it behind me so I could enjoy the holidays with my family and friends.
Because my type of breast cancer was estrogen and progesterone receptor positive
(which means it was fed by hormones), I was placed on an aromatase inhibitor in
January of 2022, which suppresses the production of Estrogen. Soon after, I was
dealing with a whole host of side effects that made me pretty miserable. Fortunately, my medical oncologist, Dr. Ortiz Cruz, was sensitive to my concerns. She put me on a
different drug and adjusted the dose to make me more comfortable since I would have to be on this type of drug for a minimum of five years. The good news is that I’m doing much better on the new drug AND I’m almost two years in!
I go for regular bloodwork and checkups with my doctors and have the support of an
amazing naturopath who has helped me with the side effects of the drugs. I’m doing
well and trying to live my best life right now. I try to take each day as it comes and find
the lessons and blessings along the way. I just hope and pray that this will be the end of
my breast cancer journey, other than how God wants to use my story to help others and
any additional lessons He wants to teach me.
Pink Phoenix Rising
Back to the tattoo I mentioned earlier. The Phoenix Rising has always resonated with me because of what it represents. The Phoenix is a mythological bird that cyclically regenerates or is born again from its own ashes.
Associated with fire and the sun, the Phoenix obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its previous self. Some legends say it dies in a show of flames and combustion
before being born anew, each time more glorious than its previous self. It is also found
in Christian mythology to represent Christ’s resurrection, beauty from ashes, and our death and rebirth through baptism in Him. Refiner’s fire. Beauty from ashes. Victory over death. Rising above our circumstances. Rebirth and regeneration. Transformation. My faith in Jesus.
When I went through my first breast cancer journey, I found this image of a pink Phoenix Rising when I was looking for tattoos. The color pink represents my journey with breast cancer and honors my grandmothers who were also victorious. I want to have something like this over my heart (where my breast cancer was found and where the new scar is located) as a permanent reminder of my journey and who I want to be when I face future trials, pain, loss, or anything that feels like “fire”. To me, it is a reminder to thank God that I am alive, for the beauty He has brought from the ashes of my life, and all of the “second chances” I have been given.
More than that, I want it as a symbol of this new life I have been given through Christ.
The fact of the matter is that each of us will go through various forms of “fire” during our lifetimes. We can choose whether we are going to be victims and go up in flames or to persevere and come out the other side as a stronger, wiser, more beautiful version of
ourselves. We can in fact embrace the death of the “old self” and resurrect as a new
We can all choose to be the Phoenix Rising. No matter what our circumstances, we can
choose to be victorious. We can allow the fire to refine us, transform us, and reveal our
inner essence, strength, and beauty. We can look for the beauty amidst the ash –
hidden blessings, opportunities to be grateful, the small and large victories. We can love our “cancers,” and in loving them, we can heal. And then, we can begin again. The
choice is ours to make. And, that choice changes EVERYTHING.
Isaiah 61:1-6 (NIV)
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.”
Dawn currently owns and operates Inspiritus Yoga and co-owns and operates The Retreat Ladies where she helps people find healing, growth, and transformation through various modalities of yoga, mindful eating, wholistic wellness programs, yoga and wellness retreats. She also offers private healing and wellness services and speaks and writes on wellness and yoga topics regularly.
Dawn teaches, trains, and ministers to others with passion and purpose born of her own healing and transformation. She believes it is her life’s calling to help others in this way.