Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on The Yin and Yang of transitions…

The Yin and Yang of transitions…

We are getting into a time of year that often involves a strange mix of busyness and contemplation, joys and sorrows, togetherness and separateness.  The darkest day of the year for the northern hemisphere and the lightest day of the year for the southern hemisphere.

It is interesting to contemplate this yin and yang that is ever present in our lives and the world… even if we have lost our ability to see and feel it.

When we are on the precipice of a birthday, new year, or new beginning, we often feel compelled to take stock of where we are at.  A time of setting intentions for some, and a time of setting demands on self for others.  The difference lies in one’s ability to be compassionate with self, the ability to accept where one is, and the capacity to have reasonable expectations while finding inspiration to move ahead.

When I think about the three new years since my diagnosis, I recall the flavor of each one.  The first was in the middle of my chemo.  The impact was beginning to wear on my body, and I needed to stay truly present to the moment to moment changes in order to keep myself taking one step in front of the other.

The second new years, I had just gone through my final surgeries, and my final “outside of the home” trip that year was to a doctor’s office to see how I was healing.  While I wouldn’t have chosen that for my final act of 2015, it was so appropriate.

The third year, I had the opportunity to go out by myself for a cross country ski in sparkly new snow.  The sun was out, and it mirrored the deep joy I felt at being alive and well.

When things feel turbulent, I often turn to words to find solace, hope and a guiding light.  A few years ago, I stumbled upon the beautiful poetry of John O’Donahue.  In his book, To Bless the Space between us, was the most moving poem about transition. Perhaps it will offer you today the words you need to hear.

Titled, For a New Beginning, it reads:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Whether you are planting a small seed of hope to nurture into life or contemplating a significant life change or adventure, staying true to our selves, staying true to our core values, staying true to acts of kindness, can bring us through the turbulence onto solid ground.

– 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 via Creativity 0 comments on Chilling with your cells thru art and meditation

Chilling with your cells thru art and meditation

When I was diagnosed with cancer, someone recommended the book, The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton, PhD, a stem cell biologist who writes about the connection between science and spirit.  The premise of the book is that our beliefs impact us at a cellular level, meaning that cells under the microscope look different depending upon the context of the environment- ie happier or relaxed environments cause the cells to respond in kind, whereas a stressful environment causes the cells to go into a protection mode.  Dr. Lipton states that this happens because our cells are in essence mini humans.

Whether or not you can get behind this theory, I do think that it is at minimum an interesting way to think about our insides.  When you have been diagnosed with cancer, it is quite natural to fear what is happening inside of your body, and as a result we need to find ways to support ourselves through it.

Vipassana meditation is a form of meditation in which we actively observe the deep interconnection of the body and mind.  Using this style of meditation, we ask ourselves to find and follow a focal point, which I applied to my technique of cellular meditation.

Before we look at cellular meditation, let’s consider how it may be of use when you have cancer:

  • To cope with chemotherapy– chemo often stirs a lot of anxiety for people, after all it is a toxin which we are actively choosing to put into our body.  Sitting in the infusion chair is a tremendously brave act.  When you use cellular meditation, it can help with the transition into the chair and into the treatment, talking to yourself at the cellular level with soothing messages as well as envisioning the chemo being really successful at killing those cancer cells.
  • To cope with blood draws, scans, and tests– cancer causes a lot of scanxiety- the anxiety that comes with diagnostic testing.  Yet we must find a way to move through it with as much ease as we can find.
  • Recurrence fears– as cancer reminds us, we only have so much control over the outcome of our lives. If we are suffering with fears of recurrence, it’s important to check in with our oncs to see if our symptoms are requiring attention. And, we can help tolerate that process through cellular meditation.
  • To bring peacefulness and joy– during and following cancer treatment, we have to be realistic with how our bodies and minds are doing at any given moment.  Often this means that we need to tap into patience and decrease fear that we will never be the same again.  Focusing our cellular meditation on peacefulness and joy can bring a calm to the storm.

A cellular meditation involves taking a few simple steps, which can be applied in a number of ways:

  1. Withdrawing our attention from the outside to the inside, through softening our gaze or closing our eyes.
  2. Connecting to our breath- by taking breaths that travel all the way into your belly before expanding into your chest (placing a hand on your belly helps to increase awareness of this action).
  3. With your minds eye (ie attention) travel down from the top of your head into the core.
  4. Take a moment to observe what you find.
  5. Set an intention of the environment you wish to bathe your cells in, let it become the focal point for a period of time until you begin to feel the effect it is having on your system.
  6. As you notice a shift, begin to see how that impacts your internal environment, your cells, returning to your intention as needed or desired.
  7. Before ending your session, take a moment to notice how you are feeling now.

Meditations don’t need to happen always from a seated posture, here are some other ways to enjoy a cellular meditation:

  • Through art– Dr. Lipton described the cells thru the microscope, which brought to my mind the idea of using a mandala to meditate on my cells.  A mandala is a circle that is drawn on paper, in which one draws, and it is used by Buddhist monks for healing.  Imagine that the circle is a microscope that is looking inside at your cells.  Follow the above flow for cellular meditation using whatever are supplies you have on hand to represent each step- here is an example of one I did for this blog.
  • Through yoga– the practice of yoga already asks us to go inside and connect with our bodies.  If you select a more slower and gentler style, such as Hatha, it is possible to do the cellular meditation right on the mat.
  • Through music– have you ever tried listening to music with your whole body, including your cells?  It is quite an experience- you might even create a play list that takes you through different genres and feelings, ending in the final place you wish to reach.
  • Through nature– this one is most successful if we imagine the qualities of nature that we enjoy to flow from the outside into our insides, into our cells.  Whether you are walking, running or resting, this is a lovely exercise to try!

From my cells to yours, I hope that you find bliss through this practice!  Namasté.

– 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 via Creativity 0 comments on The healing power of poetry

The healing power of poetry

Have you ever noticed how poetry has the ability to cut to the chase, diving directly and deeply into its subject matter?  One of the books I have still from grad school, The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, subtitled the chapter on poetry and autobiographical writing as “something hatches”.  A remarkably simple phrase that truly captures the sensation we have when our poetry captures our experience.

Even if you do not have much experience writing poetry, there are a few simple “tricks of the trade” that I find makes it accessible for everyone to use.  For me, I personally find it the easiest to connect to my inner scribe after making art.  If you want to experiment with that idea, this post Healing through art and writing, can help you find a place to start.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • Practice free writing– i.e. setting a timer (start with something shorter- 5 or 10 minutes) and write whatever comes to mind, without concern for spelling or punctuation.  When you are finished, go back through and select words or phrases that appeal to you, and see if they can combine into a poem or be the kick off point for getting one started
  • Free writing with focus– this is very similar, but involves first tapping into an experience that you wish to explore through writing.  One very powerful example is getting in touch with what it was liked to be diagnosed.  Once you feel that you are in touch with the experience you have selected, follow the instructions above for free writing. For a little more guidance on getting into that frame of mind, check out the FB Live video I did with CancerGrad.
  • Try Ransom Note Poetry.  This was one of my favorite directives from grad school.  It does involve a little prep work, which is having on hand a large variety of words that are cut our from newspapers and magazines.  This can be an awesome task for when you are feeling tired and are sitting down.  Over time, you will collect a lovely little stash.  Once you have a nice collection, take a few minutes to connect to yourself, and then mull through them- selecting words that seem to call your attention.  Once you have some, play around with how they might work together, and allow your instinct to find the words that you might need to add to complete your piece.  Collage them together and/or write them down somewhere so that you can toss them back into your box.

Some of us feel drawn to the structured form of the haiku, sonnet or limerick; whereas others might prefer a free verse style that has less rules and form.  Learning to tune into ourselves and our experience helps us determine which form we might want to use on any given day.

Not only does following our creative intuition build our creative muscle, but it also comes with the added bonus of re-building a trusting relationship with our instinct once again, something that often suffers when we face cancer.  My post about self-confidence and cancer unpacks why this happens, clear here to read more.

When we connect to our creative instinct and act upon it, we are subtly working on re-building our self confidence, while receiving the gift of time and attention to the unsettled parts of our life story.  When we capture our experience in words (or whatever art form speaks to you), we are validating our experience.  Through validation from self and others, we begin the process of releasing our pain and integrating and reclaiming our identity.

– 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 Spirit 0 comments on Holidays and feelings

Holidays and feelings

It’s that time of year here in the US, when the holiday season descends upon us and we gather together with family and friends.  Independent of our personal circumstances, the holidays tend to stir the feelings pot- as we reflect on what our traditions have been or still are, as we take stock of our life circumstances, as we think about those who we have lost and those who we have gained.

The fact that we are marching towards the darkest day of the year tends to add to the intensity of the feelings pot, because so often darkness brings us closer to thoughts, feelings and memories that are painful.

This isn’t always a doom and gloom scenario, but so often the holidays pressure us to present only the “good” feelings, which can cause us to shut down to attending to those more vulnerable parts.  When that happens, it signals that somehow a part of ourselves is not acceptable, making those feelings go underground rather than paying them the homage they deserve in order to allow them to be released.

The line between joy and suffering is truly so thin, and we can’t quite know one without the other.  When we give ourselves permission to feel both, they can find a way to flow with more ease in and out of our lives.

This year, I am feeling a resurgence of feelings from the loss of my mom 17 years ago.  I no longer play through the experience of being with her as she died from breast cancer, as I once needed to do in order to heal.  It was the experience of losing her that lead me to become an art therapist, for which I am eternally grateful, as processing her loss through art and writing were critical components of grieving.

This year, I am feeling a tenderness towards the things I wish I could have shared with her on this earthly plane.  As I have healed emotionally from cancer, I realize that she once again she was guiding me to understand that process, because she did share with me the fears she had following her first diagnosis of cancer and how she approached her physical healing.

I am so thankful that she did, because while she could not be at my side physically to help me through cancer, the memories I had from how she handled it and what she struggled with, provided me a guidepost through the murky place that is “survivorship”.  It gave me something to work off of, to ground the groundless experience of cancer and it’s aftermath.

If you are reading this post, I wonder what you are reflecting upon as we approach this holiday season and the march towards solstice.  I hope that it finds room to breath, to express, and to circle out into the greater collective of experiences that we all share.  May our sharing with those who are willing and able to listen, bring healing to one another.

Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others ~ Harriet Goldhor Lerner

So wherever you find yourself today or during this holiday season, my thoughts are with you. Namasté.

– 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 When desperation strikes

When desperation strikes

I remember my first winter after treatment ending. I had just had my final surgeries, and I was still recovering from them when I got a cold. I was already feeling pretty low physically, and this cold felt like it was pushing all of my buttons. Kind of like how your brother or sister knows how to torture you best.

I called up my PCP and did my best to convince her to give me antibiotics, citing how the radiation may have damaged my lungs and made it harder for me to heal. I was so disappointed when she said no, even though I knew deep down that it would not have been an appropriate intervention and on top of it would have killed any decent microbes that had managed to rejuvenate since the hell of treatment.

Before cancer, I hardly ever went to the doctor or got sick. I generally avoided taking medication at all costs, so this was quite out of character for me to feel this desperation.

But there are days in which that is just what cancer brings us, desperation. In this case, desperation to feel good- almost at any cost.

Of course, the above example is pretty mild in terms of the stress meter, but I share it because it demonstrates how vulnerable we can feel post cancer. Prior to having cancer, I didn’t have many qualms with my body. Post cancer, if I am not thoughtful about my stress levels and frame of mind, I can easily tumble into a dark place.

There are the more obvious triggers- such as symptoms that could be signaling a recurrence, yet in my mind what lies deep below is a sense that somehow our bodies betrayed us by growing cancer in the first place. We may also struggle with thoughts about how we did or did not do things that caused the cancer.

One ripple in the waters can set off a chain reaction. No matter where you are in in this process of healing the body, one basic recommendation that I can give you is to be compassionate with yourself when you find yourself in a desperate place (or your loved one if you are a caregiver).

When you feel desperate, it is a sign that you are feeling overwhelmed and in need of some TLC. Responding kindly to yourself or to someone else, it sets a tone that suggests that things are going to be okay. Solutions can wait until you feel stronger again, it is time to rest.

– 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 Cancer’s compromising positions

Cancer’s compromising positions

Yes, this is cheeky innuendo, and yes, this post is about sexuality and how the impact of cancer interventions put you into compromising positions regarding the long term side effects.

No one lines up at menopause’s or castration’s table and says “Ooo Ooo… pick me, pick me!”.

However, if you are positive for the  BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation, this is the life changing decision that we have the privilege of making preventatively; unlike our ovarian, prostate, and testicular cancer brothers and sisters.

I know that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I certainly wrestled with the fact that I did not get tested for genetic mutations. I had learned I was a candidate for testing at 30, but the thought that the only clear answer would be knowing I had a mutation terrified me.  Having lost my mom to breast cancer in my 20s, I was already struggling with whether or not I should have children, and that knowledge would have made it worse.  I know I am so lucky to have had the chance to become a mom.

However, while I wish I could have prevented myself from having breast cancer in the first place, I knew that I needed to take steps to prevent ovarian cancer. I underwent an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes) the same day that I got my new boobs. I had to preserve some sense of femininity, plus decrease the number of times that I would have to cope with anesthesia brain- which is just like chemo brain.

Whether you are a pre-vivor or survivor of cancer, once you move out of the phase of doing everything you can to save your life, you tumble into the phase of having to deal with the long term effects of the decisions you had to make. This phase is further complicated by recognizing that yet again you are in a place of privilege, because not everyone makes it that far. And if you also have a sexual trauma history, that adds another layer into the mix.

Our sexuality has the potential to be the silver lining of our lives- bringing joy, intimacy, excitement, and pleasure. It can be something that keeps us going in hard times, something that stokes our fires of hope and resiliency.

Yet, so often our sexual functioning and wellness is not even broached by our treatment teams. Likely this is a combo of the taboo nature of sex and sexuality, in addition to lack of time, proper training, and understanding of resources. When our treatment team fails to check in with us, it can have a silencing effect, impacting our capacity to self advocate for information, support and intervention.

While we may never fully return to our sexual prowess because of the hormonal changes or treatment side effects, we can likely find ways of greatly improving our sexual lives. Our definition of sexual activity may need to shift and change.

The other important component of healing is our identity as a sexual being. We may feel less feminine or masculine, our fantasy world might cause us to face over and over again how our bodies have been altered. Most grapple with the fear that their partner will not find them attractive anymore, and if you are single or in a toxic relationship this fear may be amplified.

At the heart of this turmoil related to our sexual identity, is the grieving we need to do related to what we have been through and the profound vulnerabilty that we face as we test the strengths of our partners ability to accept us (current and/or future). It is one of the biggest trust falls that we face.

If you find yourself in need of addressing your sexuality and sexual well being, here is a list of professionals who will hopefully able to help you. It begins with a conversation with your providers, and hopefully ends with finding guidance that helps you reclaim your sexuality:

  • Physical therapists- pelvic floor rehab
  • OBGYN- learning how to maintain healthy tissue
  • Urologists- our male OBGYN counterpart
  • Therapists and counselors who specialize in cancer and sex therapy
  • Relaxation experts, such as meditation teachers  and yoga instructors (who can also help with flexibility, naturally)

And so forth… the point being with a supportive recovery team, we can improve our lives.  Given the fact that we are tribal in nature, making connection with other cancer survivors and taking risks to openly discuss these issues, we decrease our sense of isolation and fear that somehow we are the only ones.  Of course, once we start making those connections, they often help us find the resources we need.

 every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it

-Hermann Hesse, Siddharta

– 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.