Healing Body, Healing Mind, Survivorship 0 comments on Scanxiety and it’s anxious brothers and sisters

Scanxiety and it’s anxious brothers and sisters

Today is the first day of 2nd and 4th grade for my boys.  That bittersweet moment when we simultaneously feel elated that the imbalanced nature of summer schedule will settle into the more predictable school one, and a tug of the heart knowing knowing our children are growing up.  After I put them on the bus, I recognized that there was something else tugging at my sleeve for attention- the upcoming date of my cancerversary, otherwise known as the day I was diagnosed.

I was a little unprepared for this anxiety trigger, in part because school starts early this year and the actual anniversary is not for almost two weeks.  Yet my body and mind remember the conditions that were present when this whole thing started- my youngest had gotten on the bus for the first day of kindergarten and I went to my annual check up to show my PCP the troubling lump that I had found.

I am also feeling a bit of scanxiety- the anxiety that comes with scans, as I am due to have a baseline bone density test now that my ovaries are gone (another form of collateral damage that cancer and BRCA2 mutation has brought me). Rationally, I know that this is not the sort of test that will generate biopsies, but at this point the remaining trauma of having a life threatening condition means that any medical procedure will have some fear of recurrence attached to it.

It takes time to understand our triggers for feeling anxiety following a life threatening condition.  Some can be predicted, of course, but there are many surprises.  This happens in part due to the role our amygdala plays in our brain.  The amygdala is the primal part of the brain, and it is tasked with cataloging any and all possible danger cues.  It’s not the most sophisticated part of our brain, it takes note of everything that was present during a traumatic moment without discerning whether or not those components actually were a part of what happened. So it often will make errors.  Yet, because it is the role of the amygdala to keep us safe, it is easily activated when it encounters a reminder of danger.  As in this case, my children starting school did not cause cancer, but since that event is connected to finding out I had cancer, my amygdala wants to shout “Danger!” today.

Jon Kabat Zinn’s advice comes to mind “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”, when I reflect upon how to handle all of these anxious siblings running around inside.  If we try to stop the triggers or try to control their impact, our lives would be rendered to the fate of Sisyphus- who endlessly was trying to role that big rock up over the mountain, only to have it role back again.  Who wants that?  So, instead we need to look for the ways in which we can surf them- letting them be with us, so that not only we can accept what has happened to us, but ultimately heal from it and strengthen our relationship with our body, mind, spirit and self.

– 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.

Healing Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Facing the mirror, facing ourselves, post-mastectomy

Facing the mirror, facing ourselves, post-mastectomy

The morning of the bilateral mastectomy was a blur.  I was up and out of the door prior to 6am, giving my husband and children quick squeezes before I left.  Before I know it, I was being prepped for surgery- including a pregnancy test even though I had been in chemo induced menopause for 5 months (salt in the wound!).  I was nervous, while I knew that having a bilateral mastectomy had always been my plan (something that my mom did not do and who knows if that could have prolonged her life), there are limits to how prepared one can be emotionally for such a significant surgery.  I had been listening to Peggy Huddleston’s guided meditations- Prepare yourself for surgery- since the beginning of chemo, which I highly recommend.  You can find her information on http://www.healfaster.com.

The creepy thing about surgery is that, thanks to Versed,  one moment you are being wheeled into surgery and then the next time you are conscious again- it is all done.  Waking up you feel a great deal of confusion and likely pain.  It’s disconcerting to realize that you have no conscious memory of what just happened, even though this is a blessing.  The fog of pain relievers prolongs this effect for some time.

The anxiety of facing your altered body is pretty potent.  I was really grateful that my aunt, a nurse, had offered to take care of me after the surgery, so I did have a sense of how things might look when I was ready to see it.  As I reflect upon the first time I finally glimpsed my chest, sans natural breasts and nipples, I still feel a deep sadness and loss.  It’s not a sharp pain of loss, but one that feels heavy and soft.  Watching my children be brave enough to face this tremendous change and honestly express their feelings about it brought us closer together and amplified the grief, for I no longer had a soft chest for them to lay their heads upon, nor a physical reminder of mama’s milk.  They hated the expanders, which were in place through radiation, but expressed satisfaction with the implants since they were much softer to the touch.  I wonder whether they will retain a memory of my natural body and the comfort it provided them, and when I think about the likelihood that this may be forgotten it makes me feel so sad.

One of the ways we need to heal following surgery, regardless of the surgery you had, is to be able to witness, observe and ultimately accept the new look.  This includes working with our mental image of how we look, which requires re-programming our brains to have an accurate perspective of the body.  Given that my surgery happened on the front of my body, I was constantly reminded of this change.  Constant reminders can be very bittersweet, on one hand it makes it difficult to forget what has happened, yet on the other hand it gives us ample opportunity to identify where we are in our process.  The first time I was in a locker room after swimming, I had a mini anxiety attack at the thought of changing, because I had not prepared myself for the possibility of having strangers witness my clearly altered chest.  I ultimately figured it out, but it was a good reminder of how it takes time to identify our triggers.  Recently I had a dream that I was changing in a locker room, and my dream self looked like my body as it is today, and I celebrated a little victory towards this evidence of how I am accepting myself.

When we accept ourselves for who we are and how we look, the impact is potent and carries many gifts.  Our confidence, self worth and self love strengthens.  It eases the process of recovering our intimacy with our partners and reclaiming our sexuality.  It eases the suffering we have felt and provides a pathway for letting go, bringing us more fully into the present.

– 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, teaching art and meditation for healing the body, mind, spirit, and self; workshops; and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Finding center in the turbulence of the diagnostic stage

Finding center in the turbulence of the diagnostic stage

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is something that no one wants to hear. It’s frightening, disorienting, surreal, and complex. Looking back, I realized that my perspective of the process was fairly naive until I went through it. I had anticipated being given a “stage” which essentially tells the patient how developed their cancer is and whether or not it has spread. I was stage 3a (i.e. Locally advanced) because of the tumor size and the fact that it has spread to my lymph nodes. Due to advances in breast cancer research, doctors can now differentiate information that helps determine the course of treatment and long term recommendations based upon the types of breast cancer (13 different kinds- dependent upon where/how it has grown) and whether or not the cancer has been fed by hormones (progesterone, estrogen, HER-2). If it is not fed by those hormones, one is cast into the Triple Negative Breast Cancer camp, which was the case for me. What is tricky about being in the TNBC camp is that not only is it generally aggressive and difficult to treat, it is the ‘catch all’ category for non-hormone fed breast cancer, which makes it difficult to create targeted treatments that one can find in the hormone fed cancers.

During the diagnostic stage it became evident that how my cancer had grown was atypical, and there was concern that it had metastized to other parts of my body. It can be fun to be unique, but certainly not in this case. I went through additional biopsies and scans, delaying action because the long term goals would have been to prolong life rather than attempt to eliminate the cancer. Sitting with this tension, while jumping to the storm of appointments, procedures, information overload, and trying to retain some semblance of normalcy with work and family life was challenging. I knew I had to do what I could to hold on, to find center, to keep my body, mind, spirit and self connected together in the moment. To find my roots, and seek support to keep myself there.So how is it possible to do this? There are several ways, here is a sampling:

From my body: my body was the epicenter of the tangible cancer experience. I had found the lump initially after dreaming that I had breast cancer. In the weeks between that discovery and my initial doctor’s appointments, I watched it grow and become more firm. The day I went for the mammogram, I was fortunate to be able to have the biopsy done without having to wait for an appointment. The aching pain from the biopsy helped me understand this was not just a bad dream, which was scary but also grounding.

From my mind: it was hard to keep my mind from catastrophizing the situation, or from jumping to conclusions. So I gave it the task of staying present enough to absorb the information and problem solve how I was going to manage cancer treatment and continue to fulfill to the best of my abilities my roles as a mother, wife, friend, and self-employed psychotherapist. My mind was grounded in knowing it needed to be strategic in organizing the support we needed and communicating updates to our support system. Social media not only made this much more easier to do, but more importantly when I was feeling fragile the ability for people to reply so quickly gave me unparalleled strength to carry on.

From my spirit: my spirit has always been good at believing that any experience I have had can serve my desire to help others. I trusted that I could hold on in order to feel it’s value. The Hopi poem in this post sums my spiritual beliefs of finding center beautifully.

From my self: accepting the identity change of having a serious illness at a time I my life that I felt so healthy was disorienting. I remember seeing a print out from my oncologist regarding my mortality stats, and in it my health was rated as poor. Remaining grounded in who I was, meant accepting the uncertainty of who I would be once this was “over”.

So if you find yourself to feel untethered today, can you use the words of the Hopi prayer to find your center in your body, mind, spirit, or self?

– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.

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Healing Body, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Why do we begin with the body?

Why do we begin with the body?

In the individual session that are available in person and over the Internet, I recommend participants take them in the following order: body, mind, spirit and self.  This piece describes why I believe that starting with the session focused on the body helps lay a powerful framework for the work itself.

We have the ability to experience life and trauma from our most primitive components to our highest evolution. As infants, our awareness begins through the sensations that we have in our physical body; therefore, in many ways our body retains the deepest essence of our life story. The body does not compartmentalize like the mind; thus, it holds a very raw rendition of our experience. When we have suppressed something, our body often holds the initial cues as to what that material is, and depending upon the intensity of the suppression, we might recall the memories through flashbacks and dreams.

For many of us, and in particular women, our body is the source of targeting our negative beliefs, personal narratives and thoughts. Therefore, our relationship with our body holds the key to developing genuine self-compassion and love. Developing genuine self-compassion and love are key components to healing from a traumatic illness or injury. And thus, we start with the body.

– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.

Healing Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Scar Tissue

Scar Tissue

I was lying on the table in my physical therapist’s office, updating her on the various sensations that I had been having in my body since undergoing treatment for breast cancer. We had been targeting numbness that ran down my arm on my non-radiated side. At the first appointment, the therapist shared with me that she could see and feel how the chemotherapy, double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation had damaged my tissues on multiple levels.

She laid her hands gently upon my body, to begin the delicate work of tenderly massaging my mastectomy scars to break up adhesions and improve range of motion. And at that very moment, tears sprung to my eyes and I became acutely aware of how detached I had been from this part of my body, where disease had taken over and thankfully the treatment had worked. To tolerate the treatment, I had become less attached to my body in some ways, because I needed to survive treatment and not drown in the sea of side effects that my life had become. And while yes, my breasts had been removed and expanders had been put in my place, the touch of my physical therapist reminded me that this area of my body still needed my love, support and attention. It still existed in its altered form. It was still a part of me, even if it had been removed.

After that session, I began to spend more time observing my new form in the mirror. I knew that it would be important for me to be able to see my new self, to help me accept and not reject the permanent changes. As a therapist, I am always guiding my clients to accept and come to terms with experiences, aspects of self they have pushed aside, as fragmentation causes us deep pain. And since I do my best to practice what I preach, it was my turn to do so.

As you move through your day today, think about how you relate to your body, mind, spirit, self. If you have found yourself closed off, can you imagine allowing connection to happen? What might that look and feel like to you today? You may experience a release of emotions, thoughts, and memories when you do this exercise. As needed, think of how you can support this connection and yourself as you do.

– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Healing Self 0 comments on Fostering resiliency during cancer treatment

Fostering resiliency during cancer treatment

As many of my breast cancer sisters can attest, the experience of going through treatment has many ups and downs. On one hand, it can show you the unbelievable strength and courage you innately have to face such a scary disease. On the other hand, it is taxing to undergo treatment that will test your limits.

Time and time again, I heard people wonder how it was possible for me to face cancer and to be handling it so well, another common theme among cancer patients. The long and short of it is- there is no other option. When you are diagnosed with cancer, your feet are held to the fire. So you wake up every day and figure out what it is you need to get through it.

I must admit a part of what kept me going on was a deep reserve of resiliency that I have fostered through the many obstacles I have faced in this life. Resiliency and a good helping of stubbornness- a desire to not let cancer beat me. After all, I had my kids to think about and while they certainly saw me cry in the hard moments, I also wanted to make sure that they saw how I was choosing to live every moment to the best of my capacity.

After hearing the recommendations to exercise to my tolerance during chemo, I was really thankful that I would not have to say goodbye to Zumba and “hot, sweaty” yoga. I approached each dance step and each session on the mat with the same question, “Can I try?” And more often than not, the answer was a resounding YES. I certainly was a lot slower on the dance floor and spent more time in child’s pose than my pre-cancer self, but I found a new appreciation for my body and a new way of respectfully relating to it. My body was willing to give me the pleasure of movement as long as I was thoughtful of its limitations, given the nature of the treatment we underwent together.

So, no matter what you are trying to overcome, ask yourself- what is possible today? If you stay in present, checking in with how you truly are feeling in the moment, more likely than not you will surprise yourself. After all, when we approach life with a curious frame of mind, we are likely to keep our options open.

– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.

Healing Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Feeling betrayed by the body

Feeling betrayed by the body

Feeling betrayed by the body is something that most cancer patients have experienced at one point or another in their journey. For it grows so silently until something makes us aware of it’s presence. My initial suspicion stemmed from dreaming that I had breast cancer, and then I found the lump. While I often wondered if I would get cancer because of my family history, it was still a shocking discovery to find. In between the time that I had the dream and went to the doctor, it grew to a noticeable lump when I would look at myself in the mirror.

In retrospect, once I had the official diagnosis I began to recognize that for about 6 months prior I had not been feeling quite myself- my generally unflappable energy had been waning and there had been a quality of unease inside my skin that had been persistent, even though it had not been shouting until the dream.

I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which is an aggressive, fast growing version of breast cancer. My amazing breast surgeon showed me a spot on the mammogram prior to diagnosis, which had been taken less than a year earlier, that ultimately was the cancer in its infancy. She said she could appreciate why it had not raised suspicion, in particular because my cancer grew in an atypical way, yet it was now clear that it was in fact cancer. This was the first betrayal, feeling the power of a stealthy assailant inside of your body, and wondering if you would be fortunate enough to destroy it.

The second betrayal that I experienced was when I heard the pathology results from the double mastectomy, which happened after undertaking 5 months of intense chemotherapy. While my tumor and my body were being battered by the effective and destructive chemotherapy, they found breast cancer cells in the other breast. I was shocked and pissed off, internally yelling WTH!?! It’s scary to think that even though I have worked hard to cultivate this understanding of my body, I am not omnipotent. While I have deep appreciation that ultimately a double mastectomy was the appropriate course of treatment to address this very early stage cancer, it was deeply jarring at the same time.

Moving forward from the treatment phase, we are faced with deep vulnerability about our future, because while you are going through treatment you have limited capacity to fully examine what is happening and actively treating an issue is daunting yet empowering. It is so important to say present to our body’s communication yet reach down deep into the earth to stay grounded when the fear of re-occurrence causes us to quake in our boots. Processing the feelings of betrayal that we experienced as a result of being diagnosed with a life threatening disease, is at the heart of building our resiliency for weathering any storm that comes our way.

– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.