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.

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.