Having a life threatening condition, such as cancer, brings our attention to the physical self in new ways.  As we process the news that something inside of us is causing harm, we will likely feel a range of emotions- there is the potential for feeling betrayed, for confusion, shame, anger, fear and so forth.  We might feel compelled to examine what we have done to “cause” this, we might question our faith and our sense of what was “supposed” to be happening.  Treatment may involve altering our body through surgery.  We may lose abilities because of the interventions, changes that may be temporary or permanent.

When I think about how my engagement with my physical self changed, I break it into a few general categories:

  • the initial survival phase of diagnosis, chemo, surgery and radiation, in which I did my best to care for my body, retain some normalcy of routine and exercise, while simultaneously remaining somewhat detached to make it through all of the poking, prodding, examining, altering that was happening so that I would not feel completely overwhelmed.
  • the post treatment phase of feeling the magnitude of what had just happened- the de-conditioning of my once strong body, the toxins within my system, the new aches and pains, the exhaustion coupled with the feeling of being somewhat lost as my treatment team that I connected with regularly bumped me into a quarterly check-up phase.  It was a reckoning phase, and a part of me feared I would never regain what I had lost.
  • the healing phase- since I am stubborn enough to not want to accept this new reality, I reached out and surrounded myself with a new team who would help me put myself back together bit by bit.  This team had my acupuncturist, chiropractor, and physical therapists.
  • the “feeling my cells come back to life” phase- this was filled with pure joy, it was such an exquisite phase of literally feeling like my cells were plumper, more energetic, more joyful, more oxygenated, toxin free.  This I hope to capture through art in the near future.  It was ecstatic.
  • the comprehension phase- that in some ways I am fundamentally changed, in other ways I am fundamentally more myself.  I am coming to accept that there will be some parts of my pre-cancer self that will never come back quite like they were.  They feel like a chapter that has come to an end.  In this, I feel sadness yet by using the following steps I feel the acceptance coming, bringing with it deep appreciation for the fact that I was so fortunate to have had those adventures.  With this healing, I also find myself putting to bed the parts that were not serving my highest good.  I feel a deepening in the relationship between my body and my spirit, that feels luscious and exciting in new ways.

So here are the 5 steps, may they serve you well as you seek to radically accept your body.

  1. Take an inventory of your relationship with your body in the various phases of your treatment journey, seeking professional guidance of a psychotherapist if this is triggering or tender.
  2. Look for the correlation with how your mood/feelings impact your experience of your body.
  3. Find a practice, like yoga, meditation, massage, art making, and so forth, that takes you away from the assumptions you have made about your body and allows you to experience it from the inside out.
  4. Set small, achievable goals that emphasize nourishing of the physical self. Think of them as mini-acts of self love, grounded in the present reality of your body and it’s abilities.
  5. Practice acceptance for what is true in this moment, allowing time to grieve what has been lost, to express, validate and eventually let go of those thoughts, feelings, judgments, experiences, etc. which may be holding you back from radically accepting yourself.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, 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.