Healing Body, Healing Self, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Milestones, Anniversaries, & How the Body Reminds Us

Milestones, Anniversaries, & How the Body Reminds Us

In a few short weeks, I turn 43. My mom and her sister were both 43 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. For 21 years, this was the milestone I thought of in my mind- if I make it beyond 43, then I won’t get cancer. Of course, I beat them to the punch by being diagnosed at 40. My aunt, 3 decades later, is living cancer free. My mom, 5 days after she turned 51, died from metastatic breast cancer. You may have already guessed what other milestones I have in my mind…

Because I have already been diagnosed with cancer, I think I assumed that this birthday would be less emotionally dense- my phrase for when my body is full of energetic sensations that come from deeply felt emotions.  But this week my body reminds me, through various cues, that the importance of this milestone has not been diminished by the fact the cancer question has been answered.  I feel a pain in my heart that has not been there for many years.

On one hand, I can feel myself wanting to distract from this pain by trying to analyze if I am being overly dramatic about it.  On the other hand, my creative spiritual side knows that this will be fuel for processing on the canvas of my breast casts, the many layers of the mother/daughter/sisterhood of cancer.  I now know what I wish to have for my birthday- the gift of time for art, to pay homage to this important milestone.

Our bodies often are the timekeepers of these milestones and anniversaries.  They are the ones that start releasing the energetic material of an important memory, almost like a reminder that we set ages ago and then forgot about.  Since many of these memories are stored within the context of grief, we often experience them as a heaviness inside.  If we allow ourselves time for introspection, the purpose of the release is often revealed to us- allowing for an Ah-Ha moment.

It can be very challenging to sit with this process of the energetic release.  Sometimes we may worry that if we fully allow ourselves to feel the pain, it will never stop.  Yet the opposite is true, the more we try to push away the pain, the more we suffer.  We can strike a compromise, when we set aside time to listen and experience the message, our body begins to trust us and with thoughtful planning we can craft a way to enter into and then exit an emotionally dense moment.  This will require listening to our personal cues of when we have reached our limits, and if that is something that you struggle with, then meeting with a therapist is highly recommended.

Process art can be an important ally when unpacking a milestone or anniversary.  It is effective because rather than ruminating over it in our minds, we are translating it onto paper.  This gives us the opportunity to literally get it off our chests, allowing us to have more breathing room as well as separation from it.  That distance can allow us to have a broader perspective of what we went through, to let go of what does not serve us, and to begin the process of making meaning.  This is the foundation of the individual sessions that I have designed as a tool for healing the body, mind, spirit, and self.

I share my story to honor the power of the collective- for the gift of vulnerability allows us to break the shackles of isolation.  “If you ask me what I came in this life to do, I will tell you.  I came to live out loud”- Emile Zola.

– 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. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, 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 Self, Healing Spirit, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Digging out from the aftermath of cancer

Digging out from the aftermath of cancer

Most weeks, my writing process involves me going for a run, finding my inspiration and words for the week, and then recording them as promptly as I can.  This week, however, we had a blizzard and since I was the only non-sick member of my family, I was the one who did the majority of the digging out.  As I did so, I was fantasizing about owning a snow blower but knew that since we were still “digging out” of the financial hole cancer gave us, that was not likely going to happen.  And bam- I had my inspiration for the week.  The metaphor of “digging out” from the storm cancer (or any other life threatening circumstance) can create.

Let’s face it- facing a serious medical condition often involves a lot of drain, the draining of resources, time, health, stamina, and so forth.  Many of us are blessed to have our family and community rally behind us during the period of acute crisis and active treatment, which is a blessing and helps keep the individual and their immediate family’s heads above water.  When the crisis passes, hopefully you feel like things are eventually able to stabilize.  During this phase, it is typically the immediate family that is working to keep its own head above water.  Stabilization is important, but it’s not thriving.

For full recovery- financially, physically, emotionally, etc- we need to dig in in order to dig out.  Dig into the emotions that you needed to suppress in order to make it through the health crisis.  Dig out of the financial drain that the illness caused.  And just like this recent blizzard was for myself, there are many parts of that journey that must be done on your own, because each of our experiences is unique to us- my cancer experience was different from my husband’s or my children’s or my friend’s and family’s.

It seems to be that each time I think I have dug out from a particular phase of recovery, a little reminder pops up to say- there is more work to do!  Today’s reminder was a comment from my oldest son- asking about whether or not I might get cancer again.  To honor the honesty he needs from me, I can’t promise him that I won’t, but I do take the opportunity to tell him all of the ways I am working to care for my health.

So you might ask yourself- what do I need to dig into or out of to help myself heal today?  Find that question working it’s way into your body, mind, spirit or self.  Grab a journal, a pencil or some of your favorite art supplies and let them speak to you on the paper.  Give yourself the gift of time and space to breath some fresh air into those aspects of your healing that have felt buried.  And if you find yourself stumbling, reach out for some guidance or give one of my individual sessions a try.

– 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. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, 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 5 steps towards radical acceptance of the body

5 steps towards radical acceptance of the body

Having a life threatening condition, such as cancer, brings our attention to the physical self in new ways.  As we process the news that something inside of us is causing harm, we will likely feel a range of emotions- there is the potential for feeling betrayed, for confusion, shame, anger, fear and so forth.  We might feel compelled to examine what we have done to “cause” this, we might question our faith and our sense of what was “supposed” to be happening.  Treatment may involve altering our body through surgery.  We may lose abilities because of the interventions, changes that may be temporary or permanent.

When I think about how my engagement with my physical self changed, I break it into a few general categories:

  • the initial survival phase of diagnosis, chemo, surgery and radiation, in which I did my best to care for my body, retain some normalcy of routine and exercise, while simultaneously remaining somewhat detached to make it through all of the poking, prodding, examining, altering that was happening so that I would not feel completely overwhelmed.
  • the post treatment phase of feeling the magnitude of what had just happened- the de-conditioning of my once strong body, the toxins within my system, the new aches and pains, the exhaustion coupled with the feeling of being somewhat lost as my treatment team that I connected with regularly bumped me into a quarterly check-up phase.  It was a reckoning phase, and a part of me feared I would never regain what I had lost.
  • the healing phase- since I am stubborn enough to not want to accept this new reality, I reached out and surrounded myself with a new team who would help me put myself back together bit by bit.  This team had my acupuncturist, chiropractor, and physical therapists.
  • the “feeling my cells come back to life” phase- this was filled with pure joy, it was such an exquisite phase of literally feeling like my cells were plumper, more energetic, more joyful, more oxygenated, toxin free.  This I hope to capture through art in the near future.  It was ecstatic.
  • the comprehension phase- that in some ways I am fundamentally changed, in other ways I am fundamentally more myself.  I am coming to accept that there will be some parts of my pre-cancer self that will never come back quite like they were.  They feel like a chapter that has come to an end.  In this, I feel sadness yet by using the following steps I feel the acceptance coming, bringing with it deep appreciation for the fact that I was so fortunate to have had those adventures.  With this healing, I also find myself putting to bed the parts that were not serving my highest good.  I feel a deepening in the relationship between my body and my spirit, that feels luscious and exciting in new ways.

So here are the 5 steps, may they serve you well as you seek to radically accept your body.

  1. Take an inventory of your relationship with your body in the various phases of your treatment journey, seeking professional guidance of a psychotherapist if this is triggering or tender.
  2. Look for the correlation with how your mood/feelings impact your experience of your body.
  3. Find a practice, like yoga, meditation, massage, art making, and so forth, that takes you away from the assumptions you have made about your body and allows you to experience it from the inside out.
  4. Set small, achievable goals that emphasize nourishing of the physical self. Think of them as mini-acts of self love, grounded in the present reality of your body and it’s abilities.
  5. Practice acceptance for what is true in this moment, allowing time to grieve what has been lost, to express, validate and eventually let go of those thoughts, feelings, judgments, experiences, etc. which may be holding you back from radically accepting yourself.

– 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. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, 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, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Reconstruction, a symbolic act of putting pieces back together again

Reconstruction, a symbolic act of putting pieces back together again

Many life threatening conditions require surgery to treat the condition, and for some there is the opportunity to reconstruct what has been lost.  I think for many of us, reconstruction is the symbolic act of trying to put back the pieces of ourselves, to feel whole again.  If it is our expectation that this act alone will bring us a sense of peace, we are likely going to be disappointed.  It is an important step, but truly pulling the pieces back together is a much longer process.

When you are planning for a single or double mastectomy, you simultaneously need to decide whether or not you want to have reconstruction.  For some, surgery is the first intervention for breast cancer treatment, which complicates the emotional process and gives less time for contemplation.  We’ve all heard the silver lining statements, like “At least you get to have perky boobs for the rest of your life”.  While these statements are often well-intentioned, they can minimize the loss that comes with losing a natural part of your body.

It’s a very personal decision, there are many types of reconstruction to chose from, each with their own risks and benefits.  I did chose reconstruction, and I remember laughing with a friend that I was not interested in shooting for a reconstructed nipple, because the last thing I wanted to face was the tissue becoming necrotic and falling off.  Frankly, I felt like the process of mastectomy and reconstruction was enough, and the last thing I would want it to add salt to the wound.

I have this term I like to use- emotionally dense- to capture that moment in which we are profoundly feeling and experiencing life.  The amount of time that passes during an emotionally dense experience is less important than the impact it has on our life perspective.  Reconstruction is one of those emotionally dense times, for many it happens at the end of treatment and the beginning of life post-treatment. which is nearly as terrifying as being told you had cancer in the first place.

If you are feeling at a loss following reconstruction or treatment ending, give yourself the gift of time to explore the pieces that need to be put back together.  We may wish to rush back to our lives, but if we do so without giving ourselves time to process we are going to be much more vulnerable to the unfinished business.

If we were sitting together in an art therapy session, I would be encouraging you to find a way to represent symbolically your reconstruction.  We would identify what the different pieces were that you are putting back together.  It may be layering work on canvas or paper or breaking and reconstructing work.  Find that voice inside which is whispering to you about the direction to take in a therapeutic art project.  Follow it’s lead, by taking a step you will be guided as to where you need to go next.  And if you need a little help, find a local art therapist or consider one of the individual sessions offered remotely or in person through Creative Transformations.

– 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. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, 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, Survivorship 0 comments on It is possible to miss hot flashes

It is possible to miss hot flashes

Last year I had my ovaries removed as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer, thanks to the BRCA2 mutation that I have.  My body that it had just recovered from the “chemo-pause” we had been through, and while I agreed with the treatment plan it was still sad to have my fertility come to an abrupt and definitive end.

One side effect from the surgery, of course, was the onslaught of hot flashes.  While they aren’t fun, I have enjoyed the testament to how youthful my body still was, in my mind the anthem would go like “Screw you, BRCA 2!”.  Within the past week, however, I have noticed that the frequency and intensity of those hot flashes are diminishing, and in it’s wake I am feeling a little sad.  It feels like the final chapter of a beloved novel, the end of an era.

Grieving a loss or change brings up surprises as you go through the process.  There are the more obvious triggers, such as the anniversary of an important life event, but more often we are caught off guard by the unanticipated triggers of our grieving process.  I believe it is those unanticipated triggers that can cause one to feel a sense of alarm.  We wonder at the intensity of our sensitivity to those triggers, which can really eat away at our confidence to manage our feelings and impact our relationship with our body, mind, spirit, and sense of self.

It can be profoundly draining, especially at the beginning.  If we (or others) are impatient with this process, we run the risk of doing more harm. Developing a practice of self compassion and grounding creates space for the triggers to express themselves.  If we are able to listen to the messages of the triggers, we will be more capable of releasing them and re-integrating them into our psyche.

When this is happening, it is a great time to grab your art journal and art supplies.  Give yourself, and your experience, the gift of time.  Imagine your journal is a safe container that is there simply to capture the essence of what is happening inside of you, so that you can return to it when you are ready.

– 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. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Survivorship- celebrating the small victories

Survivorship- celebrating the small victories

Recently, I’ve realized that my hair is long enough to start clogging the drain in my shower again.  Rather than feeling a slight repulsion about the clump of hair, it makes me smile every time I step into the shower.  Intellectually, I knew that having my hair again would make me happy, but the physical joy that I feel when I experience it is truly pleasurable.  Here are a few other small (and large) victories I have felt fully with my body, mind and spirit:

  • walking through the grocery store and realizing I no longer had to cling tightly to the handle of the cart for support
  • the incredible sensation of literally feeling your cells come back to life- kind of like having billions of tiny balloons re-inflate themselves inside of your skin
  • being able to breath deeply again, without pain or wheeziness
  • hearing my son’s authentic joy at seeing me in my work out clothes again- “Mama, you look so beautiful”
  • having enough energy to be out and about on adventures with my family, and not having to rest for the remainder of the day
  • watching the transformation to my eyes as the eye lashes began to grow in again

The list could go on and on.

I find it important to internally identify and note these changes, because they help me to have a deep appreciation for my health and my body, as well as assisting me in cultivating a deep compassion for what my loved ones and I went through.  I did exercise this during treatment as well, because often my anticipation of how I would feel was much worse than what I actually felt.

I see this as a vital part of reclaiming myself, of emotional healing, and as a counterpoint to when I feel those feelings of frustration about the losses we have experienced. It’s about having a healthy balance of the two, our celebrations and our sorrows, to walk in this world as a resilient person.

I’d love to hear about your small victories, feel free to share them below.  Let’s inspire one another.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.