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 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.

Healing Body, Healing Self 0 comments on When desperation strikes

When desperation strikes

I remember my first winter after treatment ending. I had just had my final surgeries, and I was still recovering from them when I got a cold. I was already feeling pretty low physically, and this cold felt like it was pushing all of my buttons. Kind of like how your brother or sister knows how to torture you best.

I called up my PCP and did my best to convince her to give me antibiotics, citing how the radiation may have damaged my lungs and made it harder for me to heal. I was so disappointed when she said no, even though I knew deep down that it would not have been an appropriate intervention and on top of it would have killed any decent microbes that had managed to rejuvenate since the hell of treatment.

Before cancer, I hardly ever went to the doctor or got sick. I generally avoided taking medication at all costs, so this was quite out of character for me to feel this desperation.

But there are days in which that is just what cancer brings us, desperation. In this case, desperation to feel good- almost at any cost.

Of course, the above example is pretty mild in terms of the stress meter, but I share it because it demonstrates how vulnerable we can feel post cancer. Prior to having cancer, I didn’t have many qualms with my body. Post cancer, if I am not thoughtful about my stress levels and frame of mind, I can easily tumble into a dark place.

There are the more obvious triggers- such as symptoms that could be signaling a recurrence, yet in my mind what lies deep below is a sense that somehow our bodies betrayed us by growing cancer in the first place. We may also struggle with thoughts about how we did or did not do things that caused the cancer.

One ripple in the waters can set off a chain reaction. No matter where you are in in this process of healing the body, one basic recommendation that I can give you is to be compassionate with yourself when you find yourself in a desperate place (or your loved one if you are a caregiver).

When you feel desperate, it is a sign that you are feeling overwhelmed and in need of some TLC. Responding kindly to yourself or to someone else, it sets a tone that suggests that things are going to be okay. Solutions can wait until you feel stronger again, it is time to rest.

– 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, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on The tentacles, layers and roots of our lives

The tentacles, layers and roots of our lives

Have you ever had the experience of talking about one life event, only to have it trigger all sorts of thoughts, feelings and memories that initially would have seem unrelated?  I see this happen all of the time in my own life and in the conversations that I have with clients.  When it happens, people often express surprise at how the conversation can wander in such unexpected ways.

To which, I always smile and reply:

Talking about our personal lives often feels like a series of interconnected tentacles, layers or root systems, and that our bodies and minds store them together- even when we might not have considered throwing them into the same box.  It is the quality of the emotions that are present which set off a wild and spontaneous ride through our psyche

As a therapist, I am always thrilled to see this happen in session, because it is evidence that the individual feels relaxed enough to just follow the path that is being laid out by our psyche.  It can almost feel like a state of being awake and dreaming, because we are unpacking the box as it is, rather then predetermining what was in there in the first place.

To stimulate this processing, we often look for a jump off point in a person’s story, or use a prompt to get the juices going.  This is the intention behind the individual art therapy sessions that have been designed to help heal emotionally from cancer and other life threatening experiences.  To fully heal from cancer, it is going to take time, and I wanted to design a tool that people can use as they move forward with their lives.

As Shai Tubali writes:

Emotions cannot evolve though intellectual comprehension; there must be direct access to them, access that allows them to go through a transformation from the plane in which they actually exist

When we find our leap off point, and then explore through art, writing and ultimately sharing through talking, we find ourselves leaning into what has happened and experiencing the emotions through an observational place- as we are trying to represent them in some way.  This allows us greater ability to move in and out of a painful experience, rather then going around and around in an unending thought loop inside of our minds.  The result allows us to begin the process of transformation.

Sometimes we need to move in and out of something rather quickly, in order to get used to the process.  Kind of like moving your body in and out of the ocean in order to acclimate it to the temperature, before leaping in completely.  If we respect our pacing while challenging ourselves to continue to move towards fully jumping in, we will find a greater trust in our own ability to do so.

So tell me, where do you wish to begin?

– 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 Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on What does furniture off-gassing and emotional healing have in common?

What does furniture off-gassing and emotional healing have in common?

Yes, I am trying to make you smile, but actually I also believe that this metaphor has a lot of significance. Here’s how it works in my mind…

Several years ago, we bought a Tempurpedic mattress. Once it was set up, we were so delighted that we would be sleeping on the most comfy mattress we had ever had. However, in order to fully reap the rewards of the mattress, we needed to accept and move through the off-gassing process. We couldn’t avoid it, we certainly weren’t going to return the mattress, because we knew that in the long run it was all going to be worth it.

The emotional healing process is quite similar. There are going to be times that we begin to reap the reward of taking the time and energy requires to heal ourselves; however, to do this we must walk through the process of off-gassing, i.e., releasing the aspects of your experience that caused suffering. When you have been diagnosed with cancer, your body, mind, spirit and sense of self has to store these events that we can’t fully process in order to cope with the crisis we face.

As we begin to heal, the triggers which set off the cascade of unfinished healing reminders, are kind of like the process of furniture off-gassing. It can strike us at unexpected times, prevent us from feeling fully comfortable, and the only way to heal it is to find ways to support yourself through the process.

So why are metaphors important in healing?  They are important because they help to transform something that is deeply personal, quite vulnerable, and subject to self criticism/judgment into something that is more compassionate, more universal, a part of the human experience- allowing ourselves to see the possibility that we are not alone but rather a part of a community of fellow travelers who are also working through similar challenges.

Metaphors can also help to normalize and validate our experience.  We’d love to have our mattresses off-gas completely the moment we obtain them, but in reality it is a process of unfolding that takes time.  When we become more realistic about what it means to heal, we can begin to accept the process rather than fight it.  We can remind ourselves that eventually the mattress no longer smells like chemicals; therefore, if we allow ourselves to feel through an experience, one day those triggers will not be as painful as they once were.

Like the mattress, our bodies hold the most raw, unrefined aspects of our life experiences.  Our physical self is the receptacle of the energy and sensations that we have trapped inside in order to survive.  These sensations can not be rationalized or avoided, so we need to create the skills and conditions that allow them to be felt, understood, and released.

Like that song I used to sing as a kid, “Going on a lion hunt”, advised:

Can’t go over it.
Can’t go under it.
Can’t go around it.
Gotta go through it.

So the real question is- what do you need in order to sustain yourself as you find your way through emotional healing?

– 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.