Healing Self, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Unpacking cancer’s baggage

Unpacking cancer’s baggage

Many moons ago a client told me about an article that she had read about the process of how and why therapy works.  She said the author described it as the process of unpacking our old baggage that we have been lugging around, exploring what is inside, and then repacking it in the manner and style we wish to.  This made sense to me, especially as often our baggage has items in it that we didn’t place in by choice.

Taking the time to unpack, observe and then re-pack allows us to let go of that which we no longer need and to be more conscious of what we are carrying around.  Sometimes we need to repeat this process over and over again, especially with those bags that hold our more tender, vulnerable, and intense experiences.  Through this process, we begin to make meaning from what we have been through and it’s importance in how it shapes who we are.

This week, I passed the two year marker of completing active treatment for breast cancer.  This day also happened to coincide with my kid’s final day of kindergarten and 2nd grade, along with other milestones for myself and my immediate family. BOOM it was done.  Another suitcase jammed full of experiences that we would need to unpack again when the time was right.

This anniversary marker has been floating in and out of my consciousness for the past week, but that afternoon I ended up with some free time, and thus it became first time I have given myself the opportunity to take a peak.  I was feeling out of sorts, wanting to be able to sift through efficiently and yet that was not in the cards for me.  Recognizing it wasn’t going to be a resolvable moment, I decided to just find a way to be with it rather that wrestle with the angst of not getting what I thought I wanted.

So here is what I did:

  • I found a way to accept where I was at
  • I found a quiet place to sit, and did a brief body scan- systematically going head-to-toe to observe what was happening inside myself
  • I quickly found this energy sitting in my chest, it was stingy, sore, uncomfortable.  I allowed myself to feel it
  • As I felt it, I increased my awareness of how my initial perception was changing, so I grabbed my art journal and supplies to put it on paper
  • I listened to my instinct about how to represent it, then finished with a few words to capture what was happening
  • I recognized that I was not going to be able to come away with a neatly re-packed suitcase.  That was not what my body and mind needed today, rather the need was to sit with the uncomfortable, the incomplete, the unknown.
  • I accepted that, closed my book, picked up my supplies, and walked away.

It’s impossible, said pride

It’s risky, said experience

It’s pointless, said reason

Give it a try, whispered the heart

-Unknown

I realize that it takes a lot of courage to face our baggage.  It can be overwhelming.  It does not have to be done alone.  The power of art and meditation can help us build a safe space in which to begin.  Allow your heart to guide you, and reach for support when you need it.

– 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. 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 Healing through art and writing

Healing through art and writing

When I am sitting down with myself or someone else to help them heal through art, we often follow this flow:

  • find the jump off point, i.e. what part of our experience is asking to be explored
  • tuning into that experience by tuning into our body
  • translating that energy, sensation, thought or feeling onto paper through color, shape, or form
  • taking a step back to talk through what has been shared, discovering what is needed to support this aspect of our experience
  • wrapping up the session by titling the piece and writing a few words to recall what has happened

I often close the session with the recommendation that time be set aside for writing, whether it is to reflect upon what happened or to capture the internal response.  In grad school, we called this process an intermodal transfer, because we were moving from one form of expression to another.

This is a critical step, as it is similar to debriefing and analyzing our dreams.  When we are engaging in a meditative art practice, we are tapping into less conscious areas of awareness, similar to how dreams tap into our subconscious.  When we take the time to write and reflect, we pull that material into our conscious mind, allowing it to become more accessible for processing.  This is imperative when you consider what you had to push aside in order to survive treatment.

The writing can take any form: bullet points, short notes, paragraphs, etc.  One form of writing that often organically surfaces from art making is poetry.  Especially when you are in the process of describing what you see in your art work.  When I was contemplating the breast casts I did for each stage of treatment, it was as if the casts were speaking to me- the words tumbled out onto the page.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, unpacks the process of tapping into our creative genius, which through research she discovered that the Greeks and Romans did not believe creativity came from humans.  Rather, they thought that creativity was a divine spirit that came to human beings and assisted them in their creative expression. She writes:

“Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention.”

Having practiced and witnessed others engaging in art therapy, I would thoroughly agree with this notion.  When we relax into expressing the messages coming from within ourselves and through ourselves, we tap into a layer of spontaneity and deep wisdom, which often offers great relief and release from our pain.  It feels magical.

– 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. 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, Survivorship 0 comments on A Cancer Story told through Art

A Cancer Story told through Art

Last October I gave a talk called “A breast cancer story told through art”, in which I discussed the how and why art can be used to heal emotionally following cancer.  I interwove the art work and writing that I had done from my cancer treatment experience to illustrate the theory in action, hoping that it would inspire others to find their own unique creative voice for healing.

I have been re-listening to the talk in preparation for a presentation I am doing.  Giving the talk was one of the highlights of my life, to be able to tell the story and share how art has helped me to heal, was such an honor.  You will find below a photograph of my breast casts, that show the treatment experience, and a link to the audio recording.  Please enjoy!

Above- the casts, Below- the link to the audio recording

The wound is the place where the light enters you

Rumi

– 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. 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 Mind, Healing Self 0 comments on Becoming empowered even in the face of uncertainty

Becoming empowered even in the face of uncertainty

Raise your hand if after you heard the words “you have cancer”, you did a lot of soul searching to figure out what you did to cause it.  It’s a natural impulse to look for reasons, but so often there is no easy answer.  Our actions and efforts can help to support our health in many ways, but they do not guarantee outcomes.  That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially if you have always tried to do the right thing.

When we base our security upon a belief that we are powerful when we are in control, we are left feeling highly vulnerable in this life. This is a common concern for those of us who have faced life threatening circumstances, because it is a natural response to want to have control when we face traumatic/life threatening situations.  Our brains are wired for survival, which means they can become hyper-vigilant about what is a threat to our safety.  Sometimes our brains get it right, but so often they attach meaning to innocuous things.

When we attempt to deal with a life threatening situation though logic or by trying to just “move on”, rather than processing it, our feelings can become the number one threat to our sense of control- and thus we spend a lot of time repressing those feelings.

Logic and rational thinking are important tools, but they are not omnipotent. Our feelings are the gatekeepers to our deepest wisdom, our intuition, and for the healing process.  They hold the material of our experience.  They are the messengers that want to be heard.  Even if they threaten our perception of control, they are the ones that will guide us through the experience.  They hold up the red flag, warn us that if we continue to try and control them rather than feel through them, we run the risk of damaging ourselves.

An empowered, resilient person is someone who can accept and respond to life and it’s curve balls.  Someone who does not need to control every moment in order to feel secure.  Someone who is connected to their core self, their emotions and who is present to what is happening.

Increasing your capacity to be empowered and resilient is something that we can all do, it is not a static process but something that evolves throughout the lifespan.

In fact, working on feeling empowered and resilient is ideal when you are facing a life threatening situation, because you will have ample opportunity to try it out and assess how you are doing.  Here are a few tips of where to begin:

  • Learn to slow down, when we are anxious or speeding around we keep the tension/adrenaline coursing through our bodies and this limits our ability to stay connected to ourselves
  • Allow your emotions to flow, when we become adept at experiencing our feelings as they occur they are less likely to build up inside ourselves and become overwhelming.  Imagine your feelings as messengers who need to simply alert you to important information
  • Revise your expectations, expectations are future based, which means they are predictions/guesses.  Even if you are an excellent strategist, it is impossible to know in advance everything, not only will this keep you engaged in trying to control, you might even miss information/opportunities that could help you if it does not match what you predicted.
  • Find ways to increase your sense of safety, this is so important, because when we are in a crisis we need to accept our circumstances and then value ourselves enough to create as much safety as we can.  Having a solid relationship with your medical team, spending time with loved ones who are compassionate, setting boundaries with those who are not capable of being supportive, connecting to others who are going through something similar- these are some examples of building safety even when danger exists.

You don’t need to do this in isolation.  For those of us who have prior histories of trauma or family dysfunction, becoming empowered may feel like a tall order.  If you are struggling, it’s an ideal time to engage in therapy.  If you’ve never been in therapy before, talk with your medical team as they will likely be able to connect you with resources.

– 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. 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.

Survivorship 0 comments on What Survivorship and Whiplash have in common

What Survivorship and Whiplash have in common

Active treatment has ended, time to celebrate!  Yet so often this party comes to an abrupt halt for the person who has ended cancer treatment.  You might even feel like you have been whiplashed…

whip·lash (h)wipˌlaSH verb

  1. 1.

jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly, typically so as to cause injury.

 

Survivorship can often feel like whiplash because at any moment, we can swing from one emotion to the next.  It’s complex and filled with internal conflict. It might look something like this:

You are happy treatments done AND scared the cancer will come back

Your loved ones are so relieved and ready to get back on track AND you are feeling blindsided by triggers of the emotions and experiences you suppressed to get through treatment

People are going back to life as it was AND you are wondering who the heck you are, because most of us feel permanently changed by the cancer experience

Treatment has ended AND your body, mind, spirit and self are left with all of the side effects and scars that were left behind

The first time cancer turned my life upside down, I was 26 and my mom had died from metastatic breast cancer.  The second time, I was 40 and diagnosed with stage 3a triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive and difficult cancer to treat.

When you are faced with a life threatening condition, the doctors tell you what the treatment plan is as well as all of the side effects that come along with it.  For most of us, we nod- perhaps advocate for alternatives, but ultimately we each need to dive into treatment independent of the side effects, because what is the alternative- death?

So you put your head down, gather your resources and support systems, and jump in- hoping that rope that connects you to higher, safe ground does not break.  Treatment is not about being in calm waters, but neither is survivorship- at least initially.

When we finally resurface from treatment, we are hauled back onto “safer” ground, to the cheers of our loved ones.  We want to join them in their bliss, and we are there to a certain degree, but when active treatment ends that is when the emotional recovery begins.  And that process is not nearly as concrete as the cancer treatment can be, which adds to the intensity of it.

My first dance with cancer caused me to pursue a career as an art therapist, because my mom’s death helped me understand acutely that grieving is an important part of the human experience and many of us don’t know how to do it successfully.  When I was diagnosed myself, I knew that art therapy would be what I turned to help myself emotionally recover.

One of the things that kept me going, was the belief that one day I would use my personal and professional experience to help others heal.  When treatment ended, I began to slowly heal.  I was surprised to find myself going to just as many appointments as I did for cancer.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that while many of us need to emotionally heal from cancer, we are quite burnt out from attending so many appointments.  Thus I started designing services that could meet a person where they were at, interventions that were effective and would allow me to drop into a person’s healing process, share some guidance and tools that they could learn and take with them.  Kind of like those magical encounters, when you bump into the right person at the right time, and it turns your day around.

– 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. 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, Survivorship 0 comments on Dancing with life, even when cancer calls

Dancing with life, even when cancer calls

Recently I was writing an article for a magazine for breast cancer patients.  I was asked to share my story of how I faced cancer and was able to thrive, with words of inspiration for others.  I was so honored to be asked, if it is published I will include a link.

Part of the assignment was to look for photos to include with the article, and while I had a few from when I was going through treatment, I needed to reach out to my closest allies who had some of my favorite photos.  Seeing them again brought a flood of feelings, these moments of sweetness and joy while I did the dance with cancer… the Zumba fundraiser in which I was able to lead a routine even though I was in my chemo low (a testament to the energy we get from fun loving crowds- for sure!), the boys first downhill skiing adventure in which I got onto the slopes for a few runs, the “wig night out” at the wine bar with my friends, in which I wore my wig for the one time- which lasted about 30 minutes before I reverted to bald.

In these moments, I was embracing and dancing with life, even though my longevity was in question.  I couldn’t have done it without my loved ones, who encouraged me to still do what I could to walk on the wild side.  And when your blood counts are hovering above transfusion level, you really are there!  Did I rock the Kasbah the way I would have pre-cancer?  No, of course not.  I took measured risks and listened to my body about it’s limitations.  I was in the game for the long haul, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t still be among the well, here and there, when possible.

The loveliest parts of these moments was being with people who could acknowledge that life wasn’t always guaranteed, and that making the most of a moment was something to embrace rather than cower from.  We were calling attention to the veil that is always there, but not always within our consciousness.

Last week a friend from our cancer support group died, a friend whom had defied the odds in so many ways.  She lived much longer than expected with brain cancer, and while she had to accept that the surgeries and treatment had caused permanent changes, she continued to see what was still possible.  She had been a long distance runner, and while she could no longer run long distances, she did return to running.  She felt slightly embarrassed, as she shared how she had run in a 5k and that many of her long distance running buddies slowed their pace so they could run with her.  Because this is what is important in life, having close companions and celebrating what we are capable of still doing, not the finish line.

Jan was an inspiration to me, and this blog is dedicated to her.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY 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 Finishing treatment, or in other words- what we all assume is the end of the tale, but isn’t

Finishing treatment, or in other words- what we all assume is the end of the tale, but isn’t

I came cross Tig Notaro’s documentary, Tig, a few months after treatment had ended.  For some reason, I was home in the middle of the day by myself, which was such a luxury.  If you are unfamiliar with it, Tig’s documentary captures her experience after having to confront three major life events simultaneously, including being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer.  In the film, she unpacks the tremendous impact this had on her mind, body, spirit and her identity- all in the midst of receiving a significant boost to her career because she had bravely shared her raw experience on stage.

Tig’s disclosure made it so evident of how much need there was to have these often taboo subjects- death, illness, facing the unknown, talked about openly.  The film made me laugh and cry, it was so moving and inspiring to see how she did not hide the struggle she felt after the medical intervention had ended and her life was going back to “normal”.

It is understandable that we might want to believe that when treatment ends, we can just go back to normal, celebrating that it is done.  Of course there is relief, but there is also all of the unprocessed thoughts and feelings of our experience that need attending to.  There is the physical recovery of the body that has endured life saving , yet toxic, treatments.  There is abrupt and stark triggers that blindside us with the need to be heard.  Like this memory from Tig’s memoir “I’m just a person”

When I returned home from New York, I looked anxiously around my apartment.  I had not been there for any substantial amount of time since everything had turned inside out, and coming home to the stillness of my life before it all changed was almost haunting… it was the scene before the crime.  The picture before the crash.  I was staring at my naivete, my assumption that life would continue to go on right where it had left off.

If you find yourself in this position, patience and compassion are going to be your most important allies.  Connecting with others who are in a similar spot is important, because it helps to break down the isolation and does not leave you alone with your thoughts.  For further guidance on how to process this experience, check out the remainder of my blogs, or consider contacting me for some cancer coaching sessions or the DIY art therapy program.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY 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, Survivorship 0 comments on Being diagnosed, or in other words, revisiting the beginning of the tale

Being diagnosed, or in other words, revisiting the beginning of the tale

Being diagnosed with cancer, or another life threatening condition, is often seen as the beginning of something.  An undoubtedly unanticipated and harrowing journey.  A day, or period of time, that will not be erased easily from memory.  An anniversary that requests to be reprocessed each year, to allow us to let go of what needs to be released and offers the opportunity for reflection- just like a birthday often does.

When I am introducing the concept of art therapy to individuals and groups, I often use the memory of being diagnosed as a jumping off point.  It is something that is universal to those who have faced a life threatening condition, independent of where they currently stand within their personal situation.  I also chose this point because it is multidimensional and full of material to work with- because this moment- or series of moments- are laden with thoughts, feelings and sensations.  If you are curious, click on this link, which will take you to a Facebook live video I did with CancerGrad, in which we talk about art therapy and then finish with a guided art/meditation experience of processing our diagnosis.

Processing our experience of being diagnosed is important, because when we wish to reclaim our sense of self, we need to let those critical moments speak.  They often hold suppressed material, because in that moment we are dealing with very strong thoughts, feelings and emotions, and it is not possible to unpack them all at once.  So each year when we cycle towards that moment, we consciously or not begin to bring up that which we still need to go through.  It’s like an onion, there are layers and layers to explore as we heal.  I have seen it stimulate strong self critical feelings, because it can be unsettling to be brought back to what sometimes feels like the beginning- as if no time has passed at all.

Another factor that can add complexity, is managing the narrative that others may wish to lay over our personal experience.  It can be very challenging for our family and friends to see us struggle, or they themselves may be struggling with their own suppressed experience of witnessing our process of being diagnosed.  One of the fundamental components of a PTSD diagnosis is experiencing or witnessing a life threatening experience and then re-experiencing it through intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories.  While it is often stronger for the person who was diagnosed, it is not unusual for loved ones to be struggling themselves and in fact is often made worse by feelings of helplessness- for the loved ones can’t take on the direct treatment experience.

If you are on the verge of that cancerversary, set aside some time for yourself to allow for contemplation.  Cancer does not have to be a dominant part of your identity, but it is an important chapter in the story of your life.  A chapter that needs to be revisited and rewritten, so that over time it can become fully integrated into the story of your life.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY 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, Survivorship 0 comments on Listen to the replay! Stephanie’s interview about emotionally healing from cancer

Listen to the replay! Stephanie’s interview about emotionally healing from cancer

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon and Becky, the founders of Breast Friends of Oregon. Each Friday they host a radio show on Voices of America.

This program was about the emotional impact of cancer and healing from it. Listen to our stories and the theory behind why art therapy can help anyone who has experienced cancer- including loved ones.

Here’s the link!

Please enjoy and share with those who could benefit!

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY 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 Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Being lost or sitting with confusion can be a very uncomfortable experience. It rubs right at that notion of being able to be in control of our destiny. Sometimes, this experience of being lost is very large and looming, like when we know we are at a fork in the road and need to chose between two paths. But more often than not, we are confronted with smaller, more ambiguous states of confusion such as “how do I feel today?”

When you are going through a life threatening condition, the rug often feels ripped out from underneath you. It can impact every aspect of our life, and finding comfort or security can feel like an impossible task.

In these moments, worry, anxiety or panic can easily settle in- or perhaps a sense of helplessness or depression. It’s an intriguing place to be- on one hand we might feel lulled into the comfort of at least feeling a concrete emotion, but if we can sit with the confusion we might just be lucky enough to make contact with our deepest wisdom- our own instinct.

Our instinct is characterized by the notion of a “gut feeling”. If we are fortunate, we were raised by parents who supported out intuitive wisdom and thus we build a healthy relationship with our gut feelings. If we weren’t, it is imperative that we begin to support ourselves through confusion in order to rebuild the lines of communication with our gut feeling.

Some of my most satisfying moments as a therapist are when I see someone reconnect with their gut feeling. There is often a look of wonderment on the person’s face, an experience of recognizing how wise they truly are.  It is an honor to witness.

In guiding a person to make contact, I often imagine myself tip-toeing into their heart to plant a seed of trust and capability. While I might have the honor of planting it, it is my client’s hard work and belief in themselves that allows it to grow.

However, since being diagnosed with a life threatening condition hits at the core of our sense of safety, it takes everyone time to rebuild trust. If this theme is pertinent to you today, take some time to dialogue with yourself about what is blocking it. And if that little voice deep inside starts to speak, honor it by listening.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY 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.