The first time I had surgery, I was in the 3rd grade.  The doctors were concerned with the look of my favorite mole, the perfectly round, cute one that sat atop of my 2nd-to-last toe.  They wanted to remove it to make sure that it was not a melanoma.  I was so devastated because not only was it my favorite mole, but the recovery process was going to prevent me from attending an important social soiree- a birthday party at a pool.

What I was not prepared for, was the trauma that would come with this procedure, in fact I don’t even recall the doctor warning me that it could hurt. To take the mole, they had to anesthetize my foot by putting a needle in the soft arch of the foot.  I was completely awake for the procedure, so I saw it happen, and in my memory I have the image from the movie Psycho-but replacing the stabbing knife with a needle.  My mom was there, thank god, but it was one of the scariest and most painful things I have been through.

To make matters worse, the doctors didn’t seem to prep my parents well for what to expect following the surgery, because they decided to go out for a date night that evening.  When I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain, the babysitter allowed me to watch my first horror movie- which continued the horror of the entire experience.  While it was awful at the time and for many years afterwards, I do actually laugh when I tell this story because it certainly wins an award for “what not to do”.

Several years afterward, when my husband and I were dating, he used to joke with me whether or not he would ever get to see my feet- because I kept them well protected by socks.  I would joke back, saying “NO”.

Twenty years after it happened, I began to break through the leftovers from this experience, somewhat unexpectedly during an expressive therapy movement class for my master’s program.  I had carried around the pain of that experience in an awkwardly disconnected and overstimulated way, but I had never thought to try and reconnect intentionally with this very tender part of my body and my experience.  In fact, as I write this, 35 years later, I still have a squeamish sensation in my foot.  However, it no longer is disabling as it once was, and my husband has not only seen my feet, but he is now allowed to touch them lightly!

I had this same need, to reconnect, after the bilateral mastectomy.  I didn’t realize how disconnected I was until I was going through physical therapy and the therapist was gently working with the scar tissue.  As she worked with the tissue, I realized how neglected this part of my body had been feeling, in addition to being a constant reminder that I had faced cancer.  This was before I had even conceived of how to heal from cancer, so it stayed with me as something I would need to explore as I did not want to repeat the surgery after-effects that I had experienced as a child.

In my work with other cancer survivors, we have discovered some common themes for healing the body post surgery.  Here are some of the most common ones, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below:

  • avoiding the area of the body where the cancer grew, because of the fear of recurrence
  • grieving the loss of the part of the body that was removed to address or prevent cancer
  • separation anxiety from the missing tissue
  • being startled by or continuously reminded that you had cancer
  • physical ramifications, such as phantom pain, loss of mobility, loss of sensation, etc.
  • negative thoughts about body image, struggling to accept the changes and/or re-visiting old thoughts and feelings about the body

Developing an ability to sit with and witness what the body has been through, what we have been through, is an important step towards healing.  This is a process that unfolds over time, thus requiring an ability to move in and out of unpacking the experience.  Understandably, we may worry that if we allow ourselves to feel through something, we might get stuck or lost in the process.  To learn more about why art is an effective tool for engaging with our experience, follow this link.

What I love about the quote: “My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive” by Cheryl Rainfield, is how she is holding a broader perspective of her experience- rather than feeling compelled to focus on one aspect or the other.  The more successful we can be at looking and accepting our experience for what it is, the more possible it is for us to heal.

– 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.