Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

In the past 10 days, I have had a series of dreams that relate with one another.  This wave comes as I prepare to be an exhibitor at the Young Survival Coalition annual summit this week in Orlando.  I am so excited to be able to connect with my fellow breast cancer survivors and share what I am doing with Creative Transformations.  When I finished with treatment I knew I wanted to heal myself and to support others in their healing; therefore, being an exhibitor feels like a tremendous honor and opportunity to make that dream a reality.

AND it is making me nervous… stirring up my shadow self as we often do in new social situations when we want to make a good first impression.  All of those questions, concerns, fears, old stories that are running through my mind…

Even though I know that every time I have had the chance to connect with other cancer survivors it has been so rewarding and special, I am human so as I move towards what I want, the things that need to be healed resurface for that chance. I imagine that I am not alone in this, and in many ways I am grateful for the opportunity to actively address what needs to be healed.

So after my first anxiety dream about traveling, I began to carve out some extra time for self care, and as a result, my dreams are reflecting that it is working.  Last night I had my fourth dream, and while there was still uncertainty present, in it I had arrived at the conference and I had made a connection. Phew!

However, as I reflected about the progressions of these dreams, it made me take stock in how lucky I am to be dreaming in the first place.  For a lot of us going through treatment, sleep can be a real issue, and we often need medication to make it happen.  While this serves a huge purpose for us from a survival standpoint, it does interfere with our ability to have lucid dreams.  Lucid dreams are an important way for our psyche to process what we are going through, so reclaiming the ability to fall and stay asleep without medication is a goal that many cancer survivors share.

After treatment had ended and I was no longer feeling as pressured to get sleep so I don’t fall apart, it felt so daunting to try and reclaim my natural ability to sleep.  Prior to cancer, I used to have periodic bouts of sleeping trouble, but nothing too serious.  Nighttime can bring a lot of anxiety to begin with, and when I was facing an aggressive, stage 3a cancer, I was open to whatever I could use to help make sleep happen- needing help to counteract the steroids, nausea and pain that comes with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Treatment ends and often side effects carry on, so I didn’t push myself to get off all sleep aids immediately.  It was really surprising to see how emotional it can be to step away from them.  My PCP recommended that I might even scrape away at the Ativan pills, saying that she found many of her patients did better by feeling more in control of lowering their dose bit by bit, scrape by scrape.  I never needed to actually scrape the pills, but I found that to be a comforting metaphor and it helped my physical and emotional self believe that I could do it on my own.

My friend and colleague referred me to “The Sleep book” by Guy Meadows, who uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to treat insomnia.  The premise of that book, in a nutshell, is that one of the reasons why we struggle to sleep normally is the awful cycle of resistance we get ourselves into.  It is understandable that we wish to sleep better, but if we spend our time fighting the fact that we aren’t, or trying to control the things that interfere with it, we end up in a power struggle.  The core of his work is an exercise called “Welcoming the Unwelcome” in which you work to accept what is, without trying to engage with it, change it or avoid it.  When we become proficient with welcoming the unwelcome, we decrease our adrenaline response to what is, and more easy drift off into sleep.

The exercise of Welcoming the Unwelcome is also helpful as you unpack the PTSD that often accompanies cancer.  We need to find ways to feel our way through it, in order to heal from it.  If you need some support around that, consider setting up a free consultation call with me to see if working together makes sense.

In the meantime, I hope you have sweet dreams and if you are going to the YSC conference in Orlando this week- please stop by and say hello!

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. I began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, I work with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages I offer. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Finding Inspiration

Finding Inspiration

This week my thoughts keep circling back to the importance of inspiration… I like to think of inspiration as the energetic fuel that keeps us going when we are going through times of great transition and change.  The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that bostlers our spirit.

Inspiration also means the act of drawing air into the lungs.  Air, naturally, is the most basic need that we have for survival.  Therefore, inspiration not only is perhaps the fuel for our spirit, but also the fuel for our bodies.

When we practice the art of mindful breathing- or inspiration- we practice the art of being in the NOW.  Being able to stay in the present is so valuable for our ever busy minds, that wish to dash off and dash away from the present. Thus we have inspiration to thank for calming the mind.

When we feel inspired, when we are breathing, when we are finding a stillness in our mind and body, we find our way back to ourselves.  We might not always recognize the person we find, because cancer can impact us in fundamental ways, but for most of us there is at least a glimmer of who we have always considered ourselves to be.  Especially if we focus on the act of simply being with our breath.

You don’t have to do extraordinary things to connect with inspiration, although it is always inspiring to see examples of authenticity and bravery- like the remarkable breast cancer survivors who walked the catwalk this week at New York fashion week, representing AnaOno Intimates. Or the story of Patti McCarthy who hiked through cancer treatment in order to keep herself reminded of her passions, “A passion that would let me live life, and not be swallowed up by cancer”.

Whatever form it might take, take some time to find inspiration.  Feed yourself, feed your soul and share it with others as a reminder to breathe.

As Marty Rubin reminds us:

Sometimes just breathing is enough

And I might add- the only thing that is possible for you at this time…

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Body, Healing Self 0 comments on Finding ease by starting from the inside

Finding ease by starting from the inside

Cancer survivors are an inspiring group of people, we face an illness that most people feel terrified to even contemplate. Although we know that there is not much choice in the matter, it is still quite a feat.

To face the diagnosis and its treatment, we go into survival mode, which means our focus has to become laser sharp, one foot in front of the other- tuning out (or attempting to) unnecessary distractions because we need every ounce of energy that we can muster.

However, while this may be effective in getting us through diagnosing and treatment, if we don’t allow ourselves to ease out of fight or flight mode, the tension we hold onto mentally and physically takes a significant toll. Tension is the physical manifestation of stress.

The first time I noticed a shift in my body following the conclusion of treatment, was observing my internal response to preparing for the final surgeries.  This was approximately 4 months after active treatment ended.  Even though I was going to physical therapy weekly, I had not realized the extent to which my body was beginning to release from it’s high alert mode.

The update that I wrote to my community of support described this awareness unfolding:

What has struck me recently about this experience was recognizing how my body has begun to feel more private again. Going through treatment- there is this way in which your body becomes public, with the multitude of medical intervention, attention and examination. To get through it, you have to detach to a certain degree because most of us don’t live under that level of scrutiny on a regular basis. To be in touch with each time it is poked, prodded, etc would be exhausting. Not to mention that the physical changes, like total hair loss, announce to anyone paying attention “I’m sick!”. It can be a bit overwhelming. So, while ultimately I know this upcoming procedure is going to be much easier than everything else, I have thankfully lost a little bit of that “thick skin” which does make me feel a bit more vulnerable to it all.

That last line, feeling more vulnerable to it all, is why we have such a hard time transitioning from a survival mode to a relaxation mode.  In order to be successful, we have to face the innate vulnerability that comes with facing a life threatening circumstance.  Releasing tension involves accepting our vulnerability, and this is not like a light switch that can be flicked on and off.

Therefore, by beginning with the body, working from the inside out, we can begin to practice the art of releasing and finding ease. It is through the body that we can begin to relax our mind.

Independent of where we are in our cancer treatment process, by starting off with short periods of time, we gently introduce feeling respite and safety to the body. We build a sanctuary within.

In a nutshell, we can begin to reconnect with our body through scanning it and then using our intention to invite more ease.  Some common options are body scans, hatha yoga, and progressive muscle relaxations.  To build an artistic practice, read my blog about cellular meditation.

There are so many resources, thanks to the internet, and I have attached a few options that I found.  Of course, if you have a local center that offers wellness resources for cancer survivors, they frequently offer classes and services that will assist you on your way.  These centers come with the added benefit of meeting other cancer survivors, decreasing our isolation.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Living life between the scans

Living life between the scans

Scans… they are the bane of cancer survivors and their co-survivors.  It’s as if you can’t escape them- for they happen at the beginning of treatment, frequently during treatment, and exists as a possibility throughout the duration of one’s existence as long as you are still being monitored for cancer.  They are ordered to identify where the cancer is in the body, to examine the effectiveness of intervention, to determine whether or not it has spread, or to understand the meaning behind certain physical symptoms that indicate something is potentially wrong.

To say the least, there really is no such thing as a neutral scan.

At my last check in with my favorite NP at my oncologists office, she noticed that my onc had put it in the plan to have another PET in February.  Typically PETs are ordered for the reasons above; however, when I was originally diagnosed they did find a spot on my hip that they were never able to fully clear of suspicion initially.  The follow up scans showed that did not change, so the NP was surprised to find the order in there.  She did not remove it, but surmised that likely it was there just as a reminder to discuss whether or not it is necessary.

On one hand, I know that my onc generally follows the rule of thumb that you only scan if there are physical symptoms present.  On the other hand, this conversation caused a cascade of thoughts in my brain, such as…

  • planting a seed of doubt- am I truly feeling good?  Have I been downplaying any physical symptoms and living in denial? Can I trust my own wisdom? Am I foolish to say that there is no need to do it?  Will that decision hurt my family?
  • a stark reminder of how critical the 3 year marker is for my type of cancer- triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).  If you make it to the 3rd year with no evidence of disease, it greatly increases your chance of long term survival.  It’s not a guarantee of course, but it does add a dose of pressure to the 3rd year marker.
  • hypervigilance- I am supposed to be mindful of changes in my body, so I can be an accurate reporter for my onc?  It’s a fine balance between to paying too much attention and too little, yet there is no device on the market that can “show” you if you are “doing it right” or not.

That being said, even though cancer takes away a lot of things from us, either temporarily or permanently, we deserve to live as fully as we can “between the scans”.  It is a fundamental human right we should all cherish.

Knowing it is a right, and getting yourself there, is the challenge.  Keep in mind, this is a judgement free zone- I want to encourage you to reduce the suffering that comes along with self criticism and reap the reward of compassion by accepting yourself for exactly who you are, at all times.

We are going to experience a wide arrange of emotions as we learn to love ourselves exactly as we are.  If we reject our thoughts and feelings, we also dull our ability to receive important messages of insight and intuition from deep within.  This can lead to more anxiety, depression, or PTSD, rather than less, as well as decrease our warning system that helps us to know when we need to ask for help.

The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a lighthouse.  A beacon of protection that warns us of danger and us to safety. Even if the light is somehow disruptive, would we choose to turn it down simply to free ourselves from the annoyance? Keeping our fingers crossed that no one crashes into the rocks the lighthouse was created to protect us from? Probably not.

Yet we do need to cultivate a way of distinguishing between a true distress signal and one that is processing and letting out that which we repressed to survive.

If you need a few tips on how to begin this process of acceptance, validation, compassion and staying present, check out these posts below:

If you live in Maine and wish to learn more about living life as well as you can between the scans, I will be leading a workshop, “Living Fully Between the Scans: Finding Healing, Connection and Hope for Cancer Survivors and the Their Loved Ones” at the March 2018 retreat being offered by Caring Connections.  It is FREE and open to all cancer survivors and their loved ones.  Registration links will be coming soon!

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on To thy own self, be true

To thy own self, be true

Being a cancer survivor frequently creates a deep awareness of how well we actually know ourselves.  It may begin with an intuitive sense that something is really wrong, and then assist us in continuing to push for diagnostics to understand what is happening. It may begin as an instinctual understanding of who we need on our team, or how we are going to respond to an intervention.

When I was diagnosed, I finally understood why I had been feeling so off for about 6 months.  At the time I sort of chalked it up to waning interest in my fitness activities, but even changing them did not truly lift the feeling.  The dream I had about having breast cancer is how I found the lump, but in retrospect my body had been talking to me for quite some time.

In my conversations with other cancer survivors, they share uncanny insights that they have had through the treatment process, which have often been right on.  Thus the phrase, to thy own self be true.

What gets tricky, of course, is that at some point most of us confront the challenge of distinguishing between the information that comes from our inner wisdom and the fears that cause disruption to our sense of security and self-confidence.  The turning point often coincides with slowing down enough to process what is or has happened to us, which can feel like a tidal wave.

Our innate wisdom, our gut sense, our deep knowing, truly has an unique energetic quality to it.  It is often subtle as we practice trusting it, getting stronger and stronger the more we listen to its wisdom.  For those of us who were actively encouraged to ignore our instinctual insight as a child or as an adult in a toxic relationship, reclaiming this power does take time.  It takes a leap of faith, yet what awaits us on the other side is so valuable.

This is where the therapeutic value of processing what we have been through can really assist us.  Through the unpacking and repacking of the most important moments of our lives, we can gain validation, new perspective, emotional release, and the opportunity to create a little more distance from what we have been through.  When we have distance from something, we are more able to manage our response to and understanding of what it is.

Since life threatening experiences impact us on so many levels, we often run into barriers of communicating exactly what we have been through.  Words do have limits to how accurately we can express ourselves, which is why the use of art is so powerful.  As we learn to translate the non-verbal parts of our internal experience through color, shape, and form, we frequently find both a release of what it represents and the words that validate our experience.

This process of validation brings a deeper connection to our self, our innate wisdom, and the confidence that we have lost because we have been diagnosed with cancer. Whether you choose to engage yourself through meditation, art or some other form of non-verbal experiencing is less important, than the gift of time to allow yourself to try.

As Shel Silverstein reminds us in his poem, “The Voice”:

There is a voice inside of you that whispers all day long, “I feel this is right for me, I know that this is wrong”

No teacher, preacher, parent, friend or wise man can decide what is right for you– just listen to

The voice that speaks inside

In solidarity,

Stephanie

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Self 0 comments on Laughter as medicine

Laughter as medicine

Last year, when I was working at the Dempsey Center, a local cancer wellness service center, there was a workshop called “laughter yoga”.  I didn’t have the opportunity to attend, but it was such a change in the atmosphere.  Typically, the atmosphere at the Dempsey Center is calming and heart-felt, but on that day as I walked with clients to and from session, we could here the participants working themselves into fits of laughter.  It added a special spark to the atmosphere that day, and a reminder that even though we may be faced with cancer, we still deserve the benefits of laughter.

When we are facing hard times, it can be challenging to find humor.  Yet if we do find it, it helps to bring a little more levity to our situation, it helps to break some of the tension we feel.  It helps us tolerate the unknown because for a moment we have lost ourselves in a good chuckle. I recall in the more stressful moments of the treatment process, if I was able to find something to joke or laugh about, it helped me cope better.

Here are some of the benefits of laughter: it lowers stress hormones, increases immunity, offers pain relief, plus it helps your organs get more oxygen, which causes the brain to release more endorphins. Of course we can’t forget how it improves mood and creates a sense of community if you are laughing with others.  Even the Mayo Clinic concurs with these health benefits. As a cancer survivor, anything that can improve my immunity catches my attention.

Since I did not have the opportunity to attend the laughter yoga workshop, I decided to search YouTube to see what might be available.  The search yielded these great images that even just scanning them made me smile.  My favorite video that I came across was done by Bianca Spears.  I liked it because she had a nice blend of explanation of the technique in combination with actually experiencing it .  Bianca states that one of the reasons why it ends up being a workout is because it uses yogic breathing to make the laughing sounds, and because the body cannot differentiate between real and simulated laughter, the health effects are the same. If you would like to check it out, click here to get the link.

There is a lovely Jewish proverb I stumbled upon several months ago, that captures this sentiment so deftly.

As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul

No matter where you are at this point in your life, I hope that you find those moments of laughter, to bring a little sparkle back into your life.  It might just depend on it.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.