Healing Body, Healing Self 0 comments on Reconnecting with ourselves following surgery

Reconnecting with ourselves following surgery

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.

 

 

Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on PTSD and the cancer warrior

PTSD and the cancer warrior

There comes a point in most cancer patient’s experience when they realize that they are having death anxiety. For some, the fear is so strong that this comes like a full speed train into the psyche. For others, the fear is more underground and therefore either creeps up on us or jumps out of that closet.

And while it is a natural response to facing a life threatening condition, admitting it often comes out like a confession. A part of this is because death is such a taboo subject, a part of it is because of survivor guilt (click here to read more on that), and then of course the ever present messages to stay strong and positive- an important ally but not maintainable in an exclusive way.

Yet what really gets this process going is the one and only PTSD, or trauma symptoms, that come with being diagnosed with cancer. Today’s post is going to look at why.

PTSD is a term that is quite well known, but not often understood unless the reference is to combat soldiers.  I think many of us can appreciate why an active duty soldier might have PTSD, and in fact it was the impact of WWII on veterans that lead to the creation of PTSD as a diagnosis.

In a nutshell, PTSD is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or a life threatening situation followed by the feeling of being unable to control what is happening.

The severity of the PTSD that one experiences is often influenced by the duration of the experience, the frequency of exposure to other traumatic or life threatening situations, the intensity of our emotions, our previous history, and the quality of our support system.

That being said, what most people actually experience with PTSD are the ramifications of what it means to have PTSD.  In other words, the initiating event is certainly important to process, but it is our reactions to it that we generally notice more, and that typically have us feeling “crazy”.

Here are some of the challenges that PTSD creates:

  • Triggers– those instant reminders of what we have been through, often set off by one of our senses (smell, touch, hearing, seeing, and tasting) that at minimum cause us to remember what happened and for some bring about flashbacks that make us feel as if the traumatic event was recurring
  • Hypervigalance– feeling hyper aware of our surroundings, attempting to never be taken off guard again.  For cancer survivors, this often manifests through the body- responding to common aches and pains with the fear that the cancer is back.  This is so normal, especially since we are asked to check in with persistent pains, etc., but the impact it can have on our psyche can be devastating if we do not have a way to cope with it.
  • Recurrent and intrusive recollections of what happened– this can happen when we are awake and when we are sleeping, in the form of images, thoughts, feelings or perceptions.  It is one of the areas that offer an entrance to healing, because it is information that we are trying to process.  This is one of the areas in which art is profoundly helpful.
  • Avoidance– the attempt to manage the intensity and frequency of our re-experiencing by trying to avoid anything that could trigger a recollection of what we have been through.  Some of these things are really obvious, such as follow up visits with the oncologists, but because our brain can attach meaning to things that were not truly a part of our experience, this can be really futile.  A quick example that comes to mind is someone who had an aversion to a particular color that she associated with the color of the exam room when she was told that she had cancer.
  • Emotional impact– this is a broad category, I like to think of the emotional side effects as our warning system that something is wrong.  Here are the most common responses: anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, poor concentration (a bit hard to decipher when you have had anesthesia or chemo brain).

My hope is that by understanding what PTSD is, it can create a deeper sense of empathy for yourself and what you have been through and an understanding of why it is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.  The longer we linger with PTSD and its side effects, the more impactful they become.

PTSD can often rear its head unexpectedly, which is why I created the DIY art therapy sessions, to offer you a tool that can be used at any time, in any location, to give you something to help ride through the storm.  The DIY sessions will enhance the work you are doing on your own, in therapy, or in support groups.

Today we are anticipating a blizzard here in the northeast of the U.S., which seems like an apt metaphor for the experience of PTSD.  The only way through it is to gather your provisions and hunker down, grounding yourself to a safe spot until it all passes.

– 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, Healing Spirit 0 comments on For the new year

For the new year

This week I am taking a little break from writing, but I wanted to close out my final #TherapyThursday post with some classic, inspirational words by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.  And when we bring what lies within us out into the world, miracles happen.

When you have or have had cancer, what lies within you is the foundation for resiliency.  Honoring our needs, setting realistic expectations of ourselves, taking space from relationships that drain us while opening up to relationships that feed you, these are the components of a strong foundation.

Working through the trauma that comes with cancer allows us to tap into our deepest sense of self, the part of us that has evolved towards self actualization, a process that continually unfolds. When we allow that part of us out into the world as we work through the trauma, miracles do happen for that helps the collective conscience of us all.

I wish you all a Happy New Year, should you have a topic that you would like me to address in an upcoming blog, write in the comments below or send me an email: creativetransformationsllc@gmail.com.

– 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, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on The Cancer Family Tree

The Cancer Family Tree

In May, I had the chance to work on an art piece that explores both my immediate family cancer history and the sisterhood/brotherhood that is formed between all cancer warriors.  This interconnection is so powerful yet so bittersweet, because it asks us to not only face our own mortality, but the mortality of those we know and love.

One of the hardest aspects to face is a sense of survivor guilt.  In fact, independent of the severity of someone’s cancer, if you ask someone how they are doing they will almost always relay some way in which they have it easier than others who have cancer.  This humility is often at the core of empathy yet may also be a signal that survivor guilt is present.

While the presence of survivor guilt is a very natural response, it is important to be mindful of how much impact it is having on those who feel it.  If it is triggering a desire to isolate or withdraw, then it is imperative to seek out someone who can help you work through it.

When I made the original cast pictured below, I felt a release of something important, but at the time I could not express myself.  Earlier this week, I realized it was time to re-visit the cast to learn what it wished to tell me.

I leave you today with the poem that arose as I sat quietly with the cast.

The Cancer Family Tree

Our story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

The cancer code crawls through the family tree

Sparing some, taking others

Living with the possibility

You are next on its target list

 

Her story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

She had cancer once, and then it came back

Her valiant efforts were not enough

To stop it in its tracks

 

My story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

14 years after burying my mother

The doctor called to say “You have cancer”

A bittersweet moment of deep inter-generational connection

Walking in her shoes, this time from the perspective of daughter and mother

 

Our story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

The sisterhood and brotherhood of cancer warriors

Binds us tightly together

And while our story may be common

EACH ONE OF US IS UNIQUE

For the effect cancer has on our lives

Intimately impacts us in deeply personal ways

From my heart to yours, 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 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.