Elephants are such majestic creatures, and I suppose it is their size that made them a great metaphor for the discomfort that comes from ignoring the elephant in the room.

I’m tired of the elephants being ignored- it does not serve you or me, in fact, I spend a lot of my worklife talking about the deep pain that one has when the elephant is being ignored, unacknowledged, dismissed, devalued, diminished…

We all deserve to be included, especially the elephants- because often they represent our most vulnerable selves. Since cancer reminds you that no one has a guarantee as to how long you will be on this planet, you no longer tolerate neglecting yourself or avoiding hard conversations- because one day there won’t be any more opportunity to have them.

Yet making space to have them is a whole other ball of wax, because while you might be motivated to unleash those elephants- your loved ones might not be. Pushing the boundaries of taboo subjects is always challenging- and when you throw in the profound undercurrent of uncertainty that cancer brings- it can drive you or someone you love to avoid, repress, dismiss, etc. even more avidly than before.

My advice is to begin with an invitation- an invitation to acknowledge the elephant. It is normal to be anxious about breaking down and breaking through, and it may not go well. But if the energy is presented as an invitation, that may be gentle enough to calm the defense mechanisms to find a place to begin.

Pre-work is often vital to making a successful invitation, unpacking your own feelings about this elephant and how it has impacted your relationship. This is a great time to break out the art journal and reflective writing AND a great time to get support from a trusted friend, therapist, group. Not only is this excellent self care, self validation, and building self understanding, but it will help prevent you from roaring into the conversation like a lion, due to your own vulnerable feelings.

Here are some of the most prominent elephants out there, related to cancer:

  • facing the fear of dying, of being alone
  • changes in sexual functioning and intimacy
  • body image and self worth
  • feeling abandoned by our treatment team
  • feeling hurt by how our support system reacted to our cancer diagnosis, treatment, etc
  • fear of the future, fear of cancer recurrence and growth
  • separation and isolation- feeling left out of the “sea of normalcy”- especially when you are Stage 4

And so forth.

To invite the elephants in, you need to grow your capacity to be with your vulnerability, your ability to stand with life as it is, discerning when you need walls of protection AND when you don’t. Walls are important to have with people who are toxic. Yet they also serve to cut us off from being deeply connected to sources of love, compassion, connection. Developing the ability to discern who it is safe to let in, begins with developing a deep connection to yourself- so that you can trust your instinct about people you meet.

I leave you this week with a wonderful Ted Talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability.

-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, she works 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, the self assessment tool, and virtual workshops.  Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.