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 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.