Healing Mind 0 comments on Connection often points us in the right Direction

Connection often points us in the right Direction

As a cancer survivor, there are so many ways in which you face losing control. As you heal emotionally, it is important to find ways to influence how you are doing, where you are going, who you have become, so that you can be more resilient to the curve balls you face in life.

In studying psychology, I learned that there were two general ways that people process- internally within their own minds or externally by mulling it over with others. Most of us are a combination of the two, but often we tend to prefer one over the other.

It’s important to keep in mind when it is wise to switch your tactic and look for a different type of connection.

For example, an internal processor might be very capable at self analysis, until you encounter a recurring thought, emotion, relationship hurdle or struggle which has never been fully dealt with. If the internal processor persists in trying to manage that situation by oneself, the end result is more likely to be stuck in the proverbial rabbit hole, ruminating and getting stuck rather than breaking through.

On the other hand, an external processor might be very comfortable with sharing their thoughts and feelings with others to arrive at conclusions or solutions. However, if an external processor wants to rehash recurring issues and problems, it’s important to watch for whether or not the conversation is repetitive- demonstrating the same rumination and stuckness that an internal processor faces in their minds. An external processor might get temporary relief from rehashing, yet ultimately be just as stuck in the rabbit hole.

The good thing is that independent of where you fall in the spectrum, the change in tactic is the same- connection. An internal processor needs to connect more with others when they get stuck, whereas an external processor needs to connect more with themselves to move forward- becoming quiet enough to observe the less vocal parts of their inner world.

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

The tentacles, layers and roots of our lives

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

To which, I always smile and reply:

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

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

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

As Shai Tubali writes:

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

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

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

So tell me, where do you wish to begin?

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Mind, Survivorship 0 comments on Facing uncertainty, from diagnosis to survivorship

Facing uncertainty, from diagnosis to survivorship

Uncertainty… it is an uncomfortable passenger along for the ride when you have been told you have cancer.  It plays a central role during the diagnosing phase, can settle down during the treatment phase, and really kicks into high gear when active treatment ends, the time of transition when either all intervention strategies are completed or perhaps you go onto a preventative medicine to decrease recurrence probability.

When active treatment ends, it can be a time of celebration, yet for the individual it is often a time of conflicting emotions.

Active treatment for cancer can feel grounding, in that there are typically concrete goals and strategies that the medical community takes to address the cancer.  Even though the plan can frequently have bumps in the road, especially regarding the physical body’s capacity to withstand the treatment, it is still a plan nevertheless, and your medical providers are keeping a close eye on how you are doing with it.

When active treatment ends, there is a notable slow down with the multitudes of appointments you have been attending.  The appointments provide structure and a lot of contact with medical professionals, which have a protective quality, a life preserver that keeps your head above water.

Whereas, survivorship feels a lot like one of those trust fall activities- you are standing, arms open wide, on the verge of letting go, falling blindly, back into the arms of those who have agreed to catch you. It takes tremendous courage to leave the ground that feels so solid- yet if you wish for full emotional recovery, the only way to get there is to go through it.

Facing uncertainty often involves tightening up the body, pulling in to decide if you have to fight or flee. This is totally appropriate when you are facing an oncoming car or something immediately life threatening, but when it is the possibility of life ending, tightening up is more likely to increase anxiety and distress, while decreasing resiliency.

This is why I am such a big fan of yoga, for the practice actively encourages to cultivate awareness of our tension while simultaneously inviting us to surrender to it- to take care of ourselves and be gentle rather than forceful with our stuck places.  If you are new to yoga, I encourage you to start with one of the more slower, gentler forms- like Hatha or Kripalu.

On November 13th, Beth Eilers of Healthful Counseling and I will be giving a presentation at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine.  Offered in collaboration with MaineHealth Learning Resource Center, our presentation, “Back to Life, Back to Reality?!”, is all about navigating survivorship. It is free to attend, pre-registration is required, which you can do right now by clicking on this link.  We look forward to meeting you!

– 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.