Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on How to tell if your emotional healing is happening

How to tell if your emotional healing is happening

This week we passed an important milestone in our family, my oldest graduated from elementary school. It was a day filled with excitement and reflection- setting an intentional time marker that an ordinary day might not have. This day happened to align with my nieces birthday, the anniversary of our buying a home, and the anniversary of my active treatment for cancer ending.

What took me by surprise is that I completely forgot that this was the anniversary of treatment ending, even though I am an anniversary kind of gal. Nor did my body remind me, as it so often does on these occasions- which I will talk about below. I was blissfully immersed in the moment, in the experience, not in the past and not in the future.

If you are a cancer survivor, you can appreciate the significance of being able to be fully present. Regardless of your persona before cancer (BC), being fully present in the moment after a cancer diagnosis is no easy feat.

When I realized that I had forgotten, I took a moment to sip that experience in. I took it as a moment to celebrate that I am not deceiving myself that I have made progress towards emotionally healing. Being able to let go rather than avoid or suppress…

This is what I want for every cancer survivor I meet- the opportunity to be fully present, even if it is just a brief moment, independent of where you are with regards to cancer treatment or status.

In order for that to happen, you will need a way of being able to sit with yourself and your reality. To feel through it… and then release… even if you can only do it for a brief period of time. With practice, you can slowly build your muscles of present moment living.

Your body is the timekeeper of these milestones and anniversaries.  Your body releases the energetic material of an important memory, almost like a reminder that you set ages ago and then forgot about.  One of the first cues to look for is a heaviness inside.  If you allow yourself time for introspection, the purpose of the release is often revealed to you- allowing for an Ah-Ha moment.

It can be very challenging to sit with this process of the energetic release.  You may worry that if you fully allow ourselves to feel the pain, it will never stop.  Yet the opposite is true, the more you try to push away the pain, the more you suffer.

You can strike a compromise by setting aside time to listen and experience the message, your body begins to trust you… rather than yelling the messages it can begin to whisper.

This trust builds because when you slow down enough to listen, you are opening the door to validation. Validating your experience is a crucial step in the healing process.

Every time I have been validated, internally or externally, the internal tension in my body dissipates, for the job my body was tasked to do has been completed.

When I realized that my body did not feel the need to energetically release prior to the anniversary of treatment ending, when I realized that my mind did not feel the need to remind me of milestone I was passing (year 3), I said THANK YOU to this marker- this litmus test- that yes, indeed, I have made progress towards the emotional healing I seek.

If you are ready to embark on that journey or if you have already started along it, having tools to assess where you are helps you build your own unique map of emotional and physical healing. By clicking here, you can sign up for the free assessment tool that I developed to help you do just that.

In solidarity!

-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.

Healing Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Moving through the habits that keep us stuck

Moving through the habits that keep us stuck

When you have been through something traumatic, like having cancer, it’s common to develop habits around managing the leftovers from the experience. When you are fearing that cancer could return, it is really difficult to see constant reminders of what you have been through. Like surgery scars, missing hair, brain fog, and so forth.

Yet, if you want to really feel like you’ve moved beyond the experience of having cancer, you are going to have to address those habits at some point. While these habits might initially help you avoid discomfort, in the long run that avoidance amplifies the unprocessed pain that we have been through and can cause you to feel more anxious or depressed, rather than less.

One example that comes to mind is the story of a client who came in to experience art as therapy. She was a young breast cancer survivor with three children, someone who had been able to reach the coveted NED status- no evidence of disease. She felt appreciative of being cancer free, yet experienced a lot of anxiety about cancer coming back.

In our work together, she was able to identify how she avoided fully washing her chest, because she was afraid that she would find a lump again. We explored this through art, her experience of avoidance and fear, and I guided her to use the art to see how she might be able to support herself. Through this guidance, she was able to connect with the color yellow, as a warm, safe and supportive color.

The change was visible as she drew the yellow color around her image of anxiety and fear. Her body began to relax, her shoulders help less tension. I suggested that she bring in the energy of yellow with her the next time she showered, and she found it to be highly effective in breaking the avoidance behavior while also feeling less anxiety about washing.

It was a significant step towards reclaiming her connection towards feeling safe again in her body. The anxiety and fear that had been driving her to avoid was less dominant, allowing her to decrease the tension without having to control the outcome. Since cancer is a reminder that you don’t have total control, taking steps towards accepting that through actively supporting yourself can decrease the distress that comes as you face what is causing you fear.

Next week I am going to be releasing my free self assessment tool that I have developed to help you identify the ways in which cancer has impacted your body, mind, spirit, and self. It will come with the link to the virtual workshop: Back to Life Back to Reality: Decoding Cancer Survivorship. That is a space limited workshop, which will allow a lot of time for participants to share with one another in addition to learning how to move forward. So stay tuned!

-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. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

Healing Body, Survivorship 0 comments on The potentially bad news that turned out good so don’t worry about, ok? Next!

The potentially bad news that turned out good so don’t worry about, ok? Next!

Raise your hand, or even better, comment below, if you have experienced the following scenario…

You are at a follow up visit to hear results following a procedure- scans, biopsy, or surgical interventions, like having your boobs taken off to remove cancer or reduce the likelihood of cancer growing.

You are likely a little anxious about what will be revealed- even if you are a chronic optimist.

The doc delivers the news with a caveat… everything’s fine BUT…

For me, it was hearing that the neoadjuvant chemo had destroyed the cancer we knew about, and that Stage 0 DCIS was found in the non-cancer boob that was removed due to my mutant BRCA2 gene. This info was quickly followed by reassurance that I should not worry about it because what was done (ie mastectomy) would have been the recommended intervention.

This blog is not meant to be a criticism of doctors, PAs, and NPs who deliver the news. I trust that they are all well intentioned when they try to minimize our distress by delivering the good news that the potentially bad news has been taken care of. I get it and still the impact is the same. The person left sitting with the news is shell shocked, trying to process what feels like yet another betrayal by our body in addition to a reminder of how closely we walk to the edge of illness and our mortality.

There are some very tiny tweaks that I feel providers could adopt that would make us transition along with them to the “so don’t worry about it” frame of mind. But since I am not sure that providers are going to read them, you might copy down this list somewhere to help you advocate for yourself if you are experiencing a whiplash moment at a medical appointment.

  • delivering the news without the medical jargon initially- because those labels scare the pants off of us
  • asking how we feel about the fact that something unexpected was detected (ie no minimizing even if it is to try to keep us feeling more optimistic)
  • reflective listening to make sure that we understand what was said- because again it is hard to fully listen when we are taken by surprise, again.
  • having a medical staff member, like a nurse, do a follow up call to check in and make sure that there were no further questions (and since this may be you, calling them, I just want you to know that asking for what you need is so important- because when left to our own devices the stories we tell ourselves can become very dark)

Sending out some good juju for anyone who can relate to this blog.  You are not alone.

– 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. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Body 0 comments on Echoing the heart through meditation

Echoing the heart through meditation

This week I had an echocardiogram. It had been a few years since the last one, which had happened in my final month of chemo. My onc and I decided that perhaps it was time to take a little look and see how it was faring post chemo and radiation.

Unlike the other two times, this time I got to watch the procedure. The equipment was shiny new and the tech was really friendly, answering my questions about what I was seeing. Watching the valves open and close, seeing the chambers, and one section that almost looked like lips sending a kiss as it opened and closed.

As I watched, a sudden swell of love and gratitude for this amazing organ came over me. My eyes teared and I thought about how much my heart had been through- not only the cancer treatment but the ups and downs of life. And yet here it is, laboring on, day in and day out, doing it’s best to keep me alive.

I have written about the power of cellular meditation, which you can check out by clicking on the link. But as I lay there, I decided to meditate with and for my heart. Through this device I could sense my heart in a new way. It was the most relaxing screening procedures I have ever had, which was a lovely change of pace.

This experience reminded me of Metta Meditation, or Loving Kindness meditation.  At the heart of this type of meditation is kindness, benevolence and goodwill.  Thus practicing this type of meditation has been shown to boost empathy and compassion towards self and others. Who couldn’t use a little more of that?

If you are curious about this style of meditation, here are the basic instructions for trying it, thanks to the Live and Dare website.

One sits down in a meditation position, with closed eyes, and generates in his mind and heart feelings of kindness and benevolence. Start by developing loving-kindness towards yourself, then progressively towards others and all beings. Usually this progression is advised:

  1. oneself
  2. a good friend
  3. a “neutral” person
  4. a difficult person
  5. all four of the above equally
  6. and then gradually the entire universe

I realize that living from the heart is not always easy, especially when life has not been kind to us. Yet when we take steps to deeply care for ourselves, living from the heart is a powerful place to be.

– 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. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

In the past 10 days, I have had a series of dreams that relate with one another.  This wave comes as I prepare to be an exhibitor at the Young Survival Coalition annual summit this week in Orlando.  I am so excited to be able to connect with my fellow breast cancer survivors and share what I am doing with Creative Transformations.  When I finished with treatment I knew I wanted to heal myself and to support others in their healing; therefore, being an exhibitor feels like a tremendous honor and opportunity to make that dream a reality.

AND it is making me nervous… stirring up my shadow self as we often do in new social situations when we want to make a good first impression.  All of those questions, concerns, fears, old stories that are running through my mind…

Even though I know that every time I have had the chance to connect with other cancer survivors it has been so rewarding and special, I am human so as I move towards what I want, the things that need to be healed resurface for that chance. I imagine that I am not alone in this, and in many ways I am grateful for the opportunity to actively address what needs to be healed.

So after my first anxiety dream about traveling, I began to carve out some extra time for self care, and as a result, my dreams are reflecting that it is working.  Last night I had my fourth dream, and while there was still uncertainty present, in it I had arrived at the conference and I had made a connection. Phew!

However, as I reflected about the progressions of these dreams, it made me take stock in how lucky I am to be dreaming in the first place.  For a lot of us going through treatment, sleep can be a real issue, and we often need medication to make it happen.  While this serves a huge purpose for us from a survival standpoint, it does interfere with our ability to have lucid dreams.  Lucid dreams are an important way for our psyche to process what we are going through, so reclaiming the ability to fall and stay asleep without medication is a goal that many cancer survivors share.

After treatment had ended and I was no longer feeling as pressured to get sleep so I don’t fall apart, it felt so daunting to try and reclaim my natural ability to sleep.  Prior to cancer, I used to have periodic bouts of sleeping trouble, but nothing too serious.  Nighttime can bring a lot of anxiety to begin with, and when I was facing an aggressive, stage 3a cancer, I was open to whatever I could use to help make sleep happen- needing help to counteract the steroids, nausea and pain that comes with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Treatment ends and often side effects carry on, so I didn’t push myself to get off all sleep aids immediately.  It was really surprising to see how emotional it can be to step away from them.  My PCP recommended that I might even scrape away at the Ativan pills, saying that she found many of her patients did better by feeling more in control of lowering their dose bit by bit, scrape by scrape.  I never needed to actually scrape the pills, but I found that to be a comforting metaphor and it helped my physical and emotional self believe that I could do it on my own.

My friend and colleague referred me to “The Sleep book” by Guy Meadows, who uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to treat insomnia.  The premise of that book, in a nutshell, is that one of the reasons why we struggle to sleep normally is the awful cycle of resistance we get ourselves into.  It is understandable that we wish to sleep better, but if we spend our time fighting the fact that we aren’t, or trying to control the things that interfere with it, we end up in a power struggle.  The core of his work is an exercise called “Welcoming the Unwelcome” in which you work to accept what is, without trying to engage with it, change it or avoid it.  When we become proficient with welcoming the unwelcome, we decrease our adrenaline response to what is, and more easy drift off into sleep.

The exercise of Welcoming the Unwelcome is also helpful as you unpack the PTSD that often accompanies cancer.  We need to find ways to feel our way through it, in order to heal from it.  If you need some support around that, consider setting up a free consultation call with me to see if working together makes sense.

In the meantime, I hope you have sweet dreams and if you are going to the YSC conference in Orlando this week- please stop by and say hello!

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. I began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, I work 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 I offer. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Body, Healing Self 0 comments on Finding ease by starting from the inside

Finding ease by starting from the inside

Cancer survivors are an inspiring group of people, we face an illness that most people feel terrified to even contemplate. Although we know that there is not much choice in the matter, it is still quite a feat.

To face the diagnosis and its treatment, we go into survival mode, which means our focus has to become laser sharp, one foot in front of the other- tuning out (or attempting to) unnecessary distractions because we need every ounce of energy that we can muster.

However, while this may be effective in getting us through diagnosing and treatment, if we don’t allow ourselves to ease out of fight or flight mode, the tension we hold onto mentally and physically takes a significant toll. Tension is the physical manifestation of stress.

The first time I noticed a shift in my body following the conclusion of treatment, was observing my internal response to preparing for the final surgeries.  This was approximately 4 months after active treatment ended.  Even though I was going to physical therapy weekly, I had not realized the extent to which my body was beginning to release from it’s high alert mode.

The update that I wrote to my community of support described this awareness unfolding:

What has struck me recently about this experience was recognizing how my body has begun to feel more private again. Going through treatment- there is this way in which your body becomes public, with the multitude of medical intervention, attention and examination. To get through it, you have to detach to a certain degree because most of us don’t live under that level of scrutiny on a regular basis. To be in touch with each time it is poked, prodded, etc would be exhausting. Not to mention that the physical changes, like total hair loss, announce to anyone paying attention “I’m sick!”. It can be a bit overwhelming. So, while ultimately I know this upcoming procedure is going to be much easier than everything else, I have thankfully lost a little bit of that “thick skin” which does make me feel a bit more vulnerable to it all.

That last line, feeling more vulnerable to it all, is why we have such a hard time transitioning from a survival mode to a relaxation mode.  In order to be successful, we have to face the innate vulnerability that comes with facing a life threatening circumstance.  Releasing tension involves accepting our vulnerability, and this is not like a light switch that can be flicked on and off.

Therefore, by beginning with the body, working from the inside out, we can begin to practice the art of releasing and finding ease. It is through the body that we can begin to relax our mind.

Independent of where we are in our cancer treatment process, by starting off with short periods of time, we gently introduce feeling respite and safety to the body. We build a sanctuary within.

In a nutshell, we can begin to reconnect with our body through scanning it and then using our intention to invite more ease.  Some common options are body scans, hatha yoga, and progressive muscle relaxations.  To build an artistic practice, read my blog about cellular meditation.

There are so many resources, thanks to the internet, and I have attached a few options that I found.  Of course, if you have a local center that offers wellness resources for cancer survivors, they frequently offer classes and services that will assist you on your way.  These centers come with the added benefit of meeting other cancer survivors, decreasing our isolation.

– 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.