Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on How to tell if your emotional healing is happening

How to tell if your emotional healing is happening

This week we passed an important milestone in our family, my oldest graduated from elementary school. It was a day filled with excitement and reflection- setting an intentional time marker that an ordinary day might not have. This day happened to align with my nieces birthday, the anniversary of our buying a home, and the anniversary of my active treatment for cancer ending.

What took me by surprise is that I completely forgot that this was the anniversary of treatment ending, even though I am an anniversary kind of gal. Nor did my body remind me, as it so often does on these occasions- which I will talk about below. I was blissfully immersed in the moment, in the experience, not in the past and not in the future.

If you are a cancer survivor, you can appreciate the significance of being able to be fully present. Regardless of your persona before cancer (BC), being fully present in the moment after a cancer diagnosis is no easy feat.

When I realized that I had forgotten, I took a moment to sip that experience in. I took it as a moment to celebrate that I am not deceiving myself that I have made progress towards emotionally healing. Being able to let go rather than avoid or suppress…

This is what I want for every cancer survivor I meet- the opportunity to be fully present, even if it is just a brief moment, independent of where you are with regards to cancer treatment or status.

In order for that to happen, you will need a way of being able to sit with yourself and your reality. To feel through it… and then release… even if you can only do it for a brief period of time. With practice, you can slowly build your muscles of present moment living.

Your body is the timekeeper of these milestones and anniversaries.  Your body releases the energetic material of an important memory, almost like a reminder that you set ages ago and then forgot about.  One of the first cues to look for is a heaviness inside.  If you allow yourself time for introspection, the purpose of the release is often revealed to you- allowing for an Ah-Ha moment.

It can be very challenging to sit with this process of the energetic release.  You may worry that if you fully allow ourselves to feel the pain, it will never stop.  Yet the opposite is true, the more you try to push away the pain, the more you suffer.

You can strike a compromise by setting aside time to listen and experience the message, your body begins to trust you… rather than yelling the messages it can begin to whisper.

This trust builds because when you slow down enough to listen, you are opening the door to validation. Validating your experience is a crucial step in the healing process.

Every time I have been validated, internally or externally, the internal tension in my body dissipates, for the job my body was tasked to do has been completed.

When I realized that my body did not feel the need to energetically release prior to the anniversary of treatment ending, when I realized that my mind did not feel the need to remind me of milestone I was passing (year 3), I said THANK YOU to this marker- this litmus test- that yes, indeed, I have made progress towards the emotional healing I seek.

If you are ready to embark on that journey or if you have already started along it, having tools to assess where you are helps you build your own unique map of emotional and physical healing. By clicking here, you can sign up for the free assessment tool that I developed to help you do just that.

In solidarity!

-Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages, the self assessment tool, and virtual workshops.  Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Mind 0 comments on Cancer is not just a medical problem

Cancer is not just a medical problem

I am feeling a rant coming on, I am going to step up onto my soapbox for this post because I feel so strongly about this topic.  And here is why.

Each time you visit the oncologist, you have to complete a survey about your symptoms, in order to help track and alert your team if something is wrong.  On that survey, typically there is one question that asks if you are feeling anxious or depressed. If you rate yourself high enough, someone will likely ask you about it and hopefully make a referral to see the social worker connected to the practice. IF you rate yourself high enough.

I want every cancer survivor to be treated AS IF they scored high on the distress scale because cancer is not just a medical problem.  I have yet to find anyone diagnosed with cancer who simply experienced it as a medical concern that had no other impact on their psyche, their lives, or their support system.

Yet, with all of the information that we are given, with all of the other providers we are required to see to treat the cancer, having a meeting with a mental health expert is not a standard part of a person’s care team. It kind of reminds me of how in the US we have to have separate health insurance to cover care for our teeth… as if our teeth were completely separate from our body.  Our emotional wellness is just as important in cancer treatment.

And what is the lasting effect of this shroud of silence? It makes it much harder to recognize the deep emotional impact a life threatening illness has on a person.  Especially when we are being told to be strong and positive by almost every person we know.  Understandably, these messages are meant to be encouraging, but ultimately these messages have an unintended consequence, a silencing effect that can cause us to keep the hard stuff to ourselves.

In my opinion, it is a form of neglect to not think more holistically about how we are being impacted.  In the many conversations that I have had with cancer survivors, too often I hear people being perplexed, confused, or even ashamed of how deeply affected they are by the cancer experience.  In the presentations and workshops that I give, I regularly hear how grateful and validating it is to hear about the emotional side of the disease.

We need to do better.  We need to stop stigmatizing mental health concerns by normalizing them. We need to stop contributing to the divide by not incorporating a mental health expert as an integral part of the treatment team for every single cancer patient. We need to have the hard conversations. We need to leave space for people to feel safe enough to share their vulnerable side, their fears.

We need to return silence to its beneficial role, one that allows us to take a moment to reflect upon how we are doing prior to responding to someone we trust will listen.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

Healing Body, Healing Mind 0 comments on The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

The power of dreams and the need to reclaim sleep

In the past 10 days, I have had a series of dreams that relate with one another.  This wave comes as I prepare to be an exhibitor at the Young Survival Coalition annual summit this week in Orlando.  I am so excited to be able to connect with my fellow breast cancer survivors and share what I am doing with Creative Transformations.  When I finished with treatment I knew I wanted to heal myself and to support others in their healing; therefore, being an exhibitor feels like a tremendous honor and opportunity to make that dream a reality.

AND it is making me nervous… stirring up my shadow self as we often do in new social situations when we want to make a good first impression.  All of those questions, concerns, fears, old stories that are running through my mind…

Even though I know that every time I have had the chance to connect with other cancer survivors it has been so rewarding and special, I am human so as I move towards what I want, the things that need to be healed resurface for that chance. I imagine that I am not alone in this, and in many ways I am grateful for the opportunity to actively address what needs to be healed.

So after my first anxiety dream about traveling, I began to carve out some extra time for self care, and as a result, my dreams are reflecting that it is working.  Last night I had my fourth dream, and while there was still uncertainty present, in it I had arrived at the conference and I had made a connection. Phew!

However, as I reflected about the progressions of these dreams, it made me take stock in how lucky I am to be dreaming in the first place.  For a lot of us going through treatment, sleep can be a real issue, and we often need medication to make it happen.  While this serves a huge purpose for us from a survival standpoint, it does interfere with our ability to have lucid dreams.  Lucid dreams are an important way for our psyche to process what we are going through, so reclaiming the ability to fall and stay asleep without medication is a goal that many cancer survivors share.

After treatment had ended and I was no longer feeling as pressured to get sleep so I don’t fall apart, it felt so daunting to try and reclaim my natural ability to sleep.  Prior to cancer, I used to have periodic bouts of sleeping trouble, but nothing too serious.  Nighttime can bring a lot of anxiety to begin with, and when I was facing an aggressive, stage 3a cancer, I was open to whatever I could use to help make sleep happen- needing help to counteract the steroids, nausea and pain that comes with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Treatment ends and often side effects carry on, so I didn’t push myself to get off all sleep aids immediately.  It was really surprising to see how emotional it can be to step away from them.  My PCP recommended that I might even scrape away at the Ativan pills, saying that she found many of her patients did better by feeling more in control of lowering their dose bit by bit, scrape by scrape.  I never needed to actually scrape the pills, but I found that to be a comforting metaphor and it helped my physical and emotional self believe that I could do it on my own.

My friend and colleague referred me to “The Sleep book” by Guy Meadows, who uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to treat insomnia.  The premise of that book, in a nutshell, is that one of the reasons why we struggle to sleep normally is the awful cycle of resistance we get ourselves into.  It is understandable that we wish to sleep better, but if we spend our time fighting the fact that we aren’t, or trying to control the things that interfere with it, we end up in a power struggle.  The core of his work is an exercise called “Welcoming the Unwelcome” in which you work to accept what is, without trying to engage with it, change it or avoid it.  When we become proficient with welcoming the unwelcome, we decrease our adrenaline response to what is, and more easy drift off into sleep.

The exercise of Welcoming the Unwelcome is also helpful as you unpack the PTSD that often accompanies cancer.  We need to find ways to feel our way through it, in order to heal from it.  If you need some support around that, consider setting up a free consultation call with me to see if working together makes sense.

In the meantime, I hope you have sweet dreams and if you are going to the YSC conference in Orlando this week- please stop by and say hello!

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. I began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, I work with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages I offer. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Living life between the scans

Living life between the scans

Scans… they are the bane of cancer survivors and their co-survivors.  It’s as if you can’t escape them- for they happen at the beginning of treatment, frequently during treatment, and exists as a possibility throughout the duration of one’s existence as long as you are still being monitored for cancer.  They are ordered to identify where the cancer is in the body, to examine the effectiveness of intervention, to determine whether or not it has spread, or to understand the meaning behind certain physical symptoms that indicate something is potentially wrong.

To say the least, there really is no such thing as a neutral scan.

At my last check in with my favorite NP at my oncologists office, she noticed that my onc had put it in the plan to have another PET in February.  Typically PETs are ordered for the reasons above; however, when I was originally diagnosed they did find a spot on my hip that they were never able to fully clear of suspicion initially.  The follow up scans showed that did not change, so the NP was surprised to find the order in there.  She did not remove it, but surmised that likely it was there just as a reminder to discuss whether or not it is necessary.

On one hand, I know that my onc generally follows the rule of thumb that you only scan if there are physical symptoms present.  On the other hand, this conversation caused a cascade of thoughts in my brain, such as…

  • planting a seed of doubt- am I truly feeling good?  Have I been downplaying any physical symptoms and living in denial? Can I trust my own wisdom? Am I foolish to say that there is no need to do it?  Will that decision hurt my family?
  • a stark reminder of how critical the 3 year marker is for my type of cancer- triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).  If you make it to the 3rd year with no evidence of disease, it greatly increases your chance of long term survival.  It’s not a guarantee of course, but it does add a dose of pressure to the 3rd year marker.
  • hypervigilance- I am supposed to be mindful of changes in my body, so I can be an accurate reporter for my onc?  It’s a fine balance between to paying too much attention and too little, yet there is no device on the market that can “show” you if you are “doing it right” or not.

That being said, even though cancer takes away a lot of things from us, either temporarily or permanently, we deserve to live as fully as we can “between the scans”.  It is a fundamental human right we should all cherish.

Knowing it is a right, and getting yourself there, is the challenge.  Keep in mind, this is a judgement free zone- I want to encourage you to reduce the suffering that comes along with self criticism and reap the reward of compassion by accepting yourself for exactly who you are, at all times.

We are going to experience a wide arrange of emotions as we learn to love ourselves exactly as we are.  If we reject our thoughts and feelings, we also dull our ability to receive important messages of insight and intuition from deep within.  This can lead to more anxiety, depression, or PTSD, rather than less, as well as decrease our warning system that helps us to know when we need to ask for help.

The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a lighthouse.  A beacon of protection that warns us of danger and us to safety. Even if the light is somehow disruptive, would we choose to turn it down simply to free ourselves from the annoyance? Keeping our fingers crossed that no one crashes into the rocks the lighthouse was created to protect us from? Probably not.

Yet we do need to cultivate a way of distinguishing between a true distress signal and one that is processing and letting out that which we repressed to survive.

If you need a few tips on how to begin this process of acceptance, validation, compassion and staying present, check out these posts below:

If you live in Maine and wish to learn more about living life as well as you can between the scans, I will be leading a workshop, “Living Fully Between the Scans: Finding Healing, Connection and Hope for Cancer Survivors and the Their Loved Ones” at the March 2018 retreat being offered by Caring Connections.  It is FREE and open to all cancer survivors and their loved ones.  Registration links will be coming soon!

– 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 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.