Healing Mind, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Emotionally healing from chemotherapy

Emotionally healing from chemotherapy

Chemotherapy was the first intervention chosen to treat my breast cancer, given the size of the tumor and the fact that I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).  TNBC is the catch-all category of breast cancer that is not fed by estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 protein, Scientists are working hard to develop targeted therapies for this type of breast cancer; however, they believe that there is actually multiple forms of breast cancer that fall under it, which makes it more difficult to treat.  Therefore, chemotherapy is often recommended first so that the oncologists can see if it is effectively killing the cancer.

To be prepared for chemo, I had a port surgically placed to protect my veins from the 5 months of poison I was going to receive.  My port was a blessing, because it eased the anxiety and pain from all of the needle sticks, but it terrified me because one of the risks was it could carry an infection straight to my heart.  Having to make such enormous medical decisions in the chaos of the diagnosing phase is so representative of the challenges one faces after being told you have a life threatening condition. TNBC is a very aggressive form of cancer, and mine was locally advanced, so there was no luxury of time for decision making.

Once treatment had ended, I turned to art to process the experience.  I had all of these breast casts that we had done prior to surgery, on the anniversary of my first chemo treatment (which coincidentally was also my wedding anniversary), I sat down and processed the experience on the cast.  Instinctively, I knew what I wanted to do, and as I worked lines of poetry emerged that validated my emotional needs in that moment.  It came first in Spanish, and then I translated it for the cast. “Oh Red Devil (nickname for one of my chemos), I am here on my knees, please save my life, because I am not done yet, I have work and purpose still”.

It’s normal to fear that dipping into a painful memory will make it worse, but this rarely is the outcome.  In fact, the externalizing of our pain onto paper is tremendously relieving as we are carrying the memory within our body, mind, and spirit.  Kind of similar to making a shopping list, once you have it on paper you no longer have to worry that you will forget what you need.

Additionally, witnessing your experience in a tangible, visible form is self-validating, which is an important  component of healing.  Our feelings are messengers, they need an audience that is listening.  When we are compassionate and accepting of them, they feel satisfied that their work is done and they fade away.  Experiences that are complicated often bring out conflicting feelings and needs, and they may need repeated audiences with us in order to feel heard, especially if we have developed the habit of banishing or repressing them.

When we practice expressing our thoughts and feelings through process art, we can gain a deeper experience of listening to them as well as understanding them because they are no longer running around in circles in our head if we are placing them on paper. I have experienced and witnessed many “A-ha” moments from process art making, in fact they often come faster and more frequently through art because of the benefit of gaining distance visually from our internal struggle.

After I had completed my Chemo cast, I left it alone for several months.  An opportunity arose for me to tell my treatment story through art, and I pulled it out to spend some time reflecting about that experience.  The words poured easily out of me, I wrote a few poems.   Here is one below:

Chemo

The battle to kill the cancer

Feels like a death march of self

Wondering which cells are going to outlast the other

Each week we measure

Making sure the damage is not irreversible

Holding our breaths to see if

The medicine that kills

Is killing effectively.

My body grows more tired with each round

I cling on to whatever normalcy I can muster

My onc must have nerves of steel and deep conviction in the treatment

For to observe this battle, day in and day out

Must be brutal

Come , she says,

This will soon be over

And then you can rest.

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

 

 

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on The gift of humor

The gift of humor

Treatment had ended, I was blessed to be cancer-free, and I was slowly piecing together the battered and bruised aspects of my life.  One can only prepare so much for the ending of treatment, and for many it is a tumultuous time.  Letting go of actively addressing a life threatening condition requires us to confront a new unknown, the possibility of recurrence, and the slippery slope of interpreting whether or not one’s various body sensations (that used to feel like everyday aches and pains) are potential evidence that the cancer has come back.  Especially when you consider that the impact of aggressive treatment on one’s body seems to require about the same length of time to address through a variety of rehabilitation methods, if not longer.

It’s a delicate balance, this phase of physical, emotional, spiritual and identity healing.  It’s not linear, there is no true Step A, B, C.  If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I am a huge advocate for the practice of art and meditation to tap into our experience in a gentle way, breaking it down into manageable bites.  I am also a big fan of humor, because sometimes you just need a little levity to bring you out of a deeply emotional place and into your body again.

As I was figuring things out, I came upon Tig Notaro’s documentary, “Tig”, in which she bravely allowed herself to be filmed as she healed following the death of her mom, her battle with breast cancer and C.diff which essentially all happened at the same time.  It was so powerful to see her honest display of being incredibly vulnerable and shaken, while continuing on, speaking her truth and seeking to find herself again.  I laughed and cried throughout the entire show.  It’s a gem.

Humor was an essential tool during my treatment as well, it helped me to shake off the stress and giggle.  I have been keeping a running list of moments that could make you laugh or cry, to help with the bittersweet moments myself and my loved one’s faced.  Here’s a few of the golden ones:

  • My older son telling me, in the middle of a birthday party for his best friend, that I looked like Emperor Palpatine.  What a drag that it didn’t coincide with Halloween, as I am terribly un-creative when it comes to costumes.
  • My younger son, who was getting tired of seeing inquisitive looks from his classmates, introducing me by saying “This is my mom, she’s bald”
  • A good OMG moment was when a classmate asked my older son- “Is this your grandmother?”
  • After my first radiation treatment, allowing myself to just honor that treatment fatigue/rotten mood by laughing along with David Sedaris’ comedic outlook on life.
  • Finally, while it broke my heart to hear my older son ask my surgeon prior to the bilateral mastectomy- “Will she die?”, my youngest son followed it with “If she dies, I will kill you”.  Clearly, he was frightened too, but it was such an unexpected thing to say we couldn’t help but laughing at the same time.  And then we followed that will lots of reassurance that everything was going to be ok.

I imagine that if you are reading this, you may have your own stories of humor amidst the horror.  I would love to hear them, so feel free to share them in the comments.  And if you need a little humor TLC, I highly recommend Tig’s documentary.

In solidarity,

Stephanie

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

 

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on It is possible to miss hot flashes

It is possible to miss hot flashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Mind, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Facing uncertainty

Facing uncertainty

Coming to terms with facing the unknown is one of the most vital challenges we confront in this life.  The fear of the unknown can quickly send us into the fight, flight or freeze mode, it can erode our moral code to the point that we dehumanize those whom we perceive as a threat to our survival.  Yet, if we were to to turn the tables, to be on the receiving end of those defenses that depersonalize and dehumanize, could we accept that?  When we seek to protect ourselves at any cost, we undeniably hurt ourselves, our families, our communities, our humanity.

We all need the chance to feel secure that our basic needs and rights are met, protected, and honored.  We cannot rest until this is universal.  We cannot live in a fragmented world of hate and suspicion.  We need to be open to expressing and accepting our wounds and the wounds of others.

When I faced the possibility of dying from cancer, the uncertainty I felt was raw and powerful.  I also felt deeply what I valued most about my life, my family and my community.  Believing in the sacredness of connection anchored me to my core when I needed it the most.

We are coming to terms with the cancerous parts of our country.  Just like when you face a light threatening condition, we must be fully accepting of the problems that exist and how we have contributed to them.  Let it be our willingness to live more boldly than we thought possible and more lovingly connected to one another that brings us to salvation.  For if we cannot deny our own individual rights, then how can we accept this for others?

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

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

Survivorship- celebrating the small victories

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

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

The list could go on and on.

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

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

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

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

Healing Body, Healing Mind, Survivorship 0 comments on Insomnia, tackling the lingering side effects of treatment

Insomnia, tackling the lingering side effects of treatment

Has cancer caused you to have some sleepless nights?  Or several in a row?  The physical challenges of treatment side effects- like nausea, hot flashes, frequent bathroom trips to flush out the toxins, pain, sore throat, and the emotional ones, such as financial stress, worry about your health, the strain on your relationships, etc take a toll on our ability to sleep normally.   It is more than likely that those sleepless nights have been plentiful.  For many, anti-nausea/anti-anxiety meds, like Ativan, become the norm and when that is not enough to do the trick, we add other things like pain medication, melatonin, lavender oil, and guided meditations.

Prior to having cancer, I would have trouble sleeping from time to time.  Once I was diagnosed, my mind was very busy, my body was tense, and the struggle began.  Knowing that a good night sleep was essential for health, the pressure to get a good night sleep amplified everything.  Previously, I might get annoyed if I was struggling to sleep.  But once I had cancer, I would be very panicky about it.  It was remarkable how quickly I went from generally a good sleeper to someone who struggled with insomnia.

The National Cancer Institute states that between 33-50% of cancer patients struggle with insomnia, whereas the general population is 10-15%.  Honestly, I would not be surprised if the number was higher.  Independent of those statistics, if you have struggled with insomnia, then you know the significant toll that it takes on one’s body, mind, spirit and sense of self.  In fact, as a therapist I often know that if a client is not sleeping well, the work we are doing together will not be effective in the long run until they do.

Furthermore, in my opinion, I was not going to feel fully restored until I was able to reclaim my ability to sleep.  However, weaning yourself off of sleep aides is much more challenging than you might anticipate initially.  As I slowly worked on the issue, I had to grapple with the anticipatory anxiety as well as physically continuing to address the ongoing physical pain that I felt as the treatment detoxed from my cells.  I found that I needed to be incredibly patient with the process, realizing that I needed to surrender not control it.

If you live locally, and want to learn new skills to reduce or eliminate insomnia, Creative Transformations is offering a free workshop on November 2nd at the Cancer Community Center.  You can register through this link: https://cancercommunitycenter.org/event/sleep-solutions-insomnia/.  If you are looking for an excellent resource to address the issue on your own, I highly recommend the Sleep Book, by Guy Meadows.  In the wise words of Dalai Lama “Sleep is the best meditation”.

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

Healing Mind, Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Rebuilding trust and faith after things fall apart

Rebuilding trust and faith after things fall apart

Intellectually we know that our lives will come to an end, the one thing that happens to everyone is that at some point we die.  Yet for most of us, our daily lives seem capable of just going on forever, time can feel infinite in this way.  Our routines create a level of predictability of what life is going to be, day in and day out.  We might not always feel satisfied, but there is a certain comfort in it.

When you’ve been told you have a life threatening condition, all of the sudden we are faced with the reality that our time is finite.  In fact, you may be given a piece of paper that tells you your recurrence and mortality rate based upon your condition.  To say the least, that is a sobering moment in a human’s life.  This was given to help educate me about how the various treatment recommendations made by my oncologist would improve my prognosis.  My oncologist was surprised that I had not asked about my chances of dying, and I was surprised that, with just a few details of what was happening physically with my body,  the computer had enough info to spit out all of these unsavory statistics.  Of all the paperwork that I kept from my doctor’s, this page seems to have disappeared, which is fine with me.

When you are told that you might die, the natural result is that you feel vulnerable and life’s fragility becomes much more observable.  This takes a toll on our ability to trust and have faith.  Fear, anger, sadness, shock, disbelief are common feelings in this state.  You think about all the things you took for granted.  You might question God’s wisdom, if you are a believer, or find yourself mulling over the unfairness of it all and the way things were “supposed to be”.  Relationships change, some will become closer and others will become more distant or disappear.  The list of how our trust or faith can be broken can go on and on.

However, trust and faith are two important building blocks of our spiritual selves, and our spirit is the foundation for being resilient.  Resiliency helps us to embrace and accept life for all of it’s highs and lows, so we want to protect that ability as much as possible.  So here are some tips for rebuilding trust and faith:

Revising our expectations– part of rebuilding our trust and faith has to do becoming more realistic about our expectations of self and others.  When we let go of high expectations, we can be more accepting of limitations and find possibilities that we didn’t see before.

Finding the gifts that come with suffering– when you think about the moments of your life that have shaped you the most, those which have hopefully created the aspects of your persona that you are most proud of, a good majority comes from facing adversity.  That vacation in Hawaii may have been lovely, but I’m willing to bet it did not build character. Facing a life threatening condition asks you to live more boldly than you ever thought possible, so take time to observe how this experience has made your stronger, deepened your gratitude, given you a sense of camaraderie and community, allowed you to let go of the less significant concerns, provided clarity on what you value, and so forth.

Allowing yourself to grieve– this is one of the areas in which I believe art can be so powerful.  Find a quiet place to sit and reflect upon where your physical, emotional or spiritual pain lives.  Using craypas, pastels, colored pencils, or whatever art material you have in hand, try to express what you are feeling on paper.  Think of the color, the shape, the texture that might capture your interior landscape.  As you allow yourself to be drawn into the expression of this pain on paper, let you intuition be the guide for what needs to happen.  Following this practice with writing or journaling can help you translate it in order to better understand yourself, and at some point when you are ready, it will allow you to let it go.

Being kind to yourself and others– after you’ve had a chance to revise expectations, you will be more able to feel compassion towards yourself and others.  Often when we are in pain, we just want it to stop, and our instinct might be to fight or flee.  Developing a practice of being gentle, loving, and kind towards yourself and others allows us to be more accepting of vulnerability and the fragility in life, and gives us more capacity to accept life’s challenges while maintaining connection to our trust and faith.

– 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 Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on From Surviving to Thriving…

From Surviving to Thriving…

Undergoing care for a life threatening condition is a beast.  For most of us, we go into survival mode to simply make it through.  There is a lot of information to process and important decisions to make.  It’s not uncommon to feel like a human pin cushion as your situation is analyzed and treated.  Your body can feel like public property as your medical team works hard to find a solution.  Your mind has to process the information while simultaneously handling the onslaught of thoughts and feelings about what is happening to you.  Your spirit may be the glue that is holding you together, yet so often these moments of crisis can really challenge our beliefs- putting them to the test.

And then the shift happens, treatment/intervention ends or shifts into a maintenance mode, and you are left standing, stripped bare of anything familiar, of who you used to be.  You are in the process of rebuilding a foundation of trust and resiliency from a very vulnerable place.

Unlike active intervention, this is a less predictable place.  You’ve met the guidelines for the plan of attack, and your treatment team has to focus on the next afflicted individual.  While I understood personally on some level that recovery would take time, I hadn’t quite planned for how much aftercare I would need to heal physically.  The weekly medical appointments with physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractor, etc seemed to take up almost as much time as treatment did.  Emotionally, I found I had to quiet down and turn in to understand what needed to heal.

Dr. Richard Schwartz, PhD, developed a therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems, or IFS for short.  This model came from listening to how his clients would refer to different components of their identity as parts- which when under duress often conflicted with one another.  Who hasn’t said along the lines of “well, a part of me wants to do xyz, but on the other hand this part of myself thinks…”.  This model can become very handy when you are trying to process a critical life incident.  IFS breaks our internal system into 4 main parts:

  • The Managers- our protective parts that wish to stay in control of situations and relationships, showing up in a variety of ways, such as- planner, care taker, controller, striver, judge/critic, the pessimist.
  • The Exiles-  the thoughts and feelings that often get set aside to be dealt with “later on”, when we are trying to focus on just keeping our heads above water.
  • The Firefighters- these parts take over when our exiles want to come back in before we are ready- often the things we do to distract or numb from processing something painful.
  • Self- this is our core or center.  When we have a clear connection to our “Self”, we have access to many qualities that can help us lead and negotiate our system as a whole. These qualities include perspective, curiosity, compassion, interconnection, confidence, creativity, courage and clarity.

So when we think about healing, it may lead to greater self compassion, patience and acceptance of the process if we use a framework, such as IFS, to understand our needs from one moment to the next.  When we put our experience into a context, we can begin to step back and become an observer of ourselves.  This is a crucial component of the rebuilding process, and a wonderful time to engage in psychotherapy as well as introspective activities such as writing, meditation, process art and yoga.  A balance of verbal and non verbal engagement with self attends to the complexity of a traumatic experience that isn’t necessarily pragmatic, rational, linear or predictable.

An open heart and willingness to embrace the darkness with the light will ease the transition from surviving to thriving.

– 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 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 Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on When you face death, you face life

When you face death, you face life

It should come as no surprise that when you are told you have a life threatening injury or illness, you can’t help but face your mortality.  Those thoughts that we all have about death become much less subjective.  It may not creep into your consciousness initially, but at some point it will.  And it probably won’t be in the form of a “bucket list”, frankly that feels like a fantasy of the healthy because I could not have contemplated a trip around the world in my condition. (so in other words- don’t keep things on a bucket list- just do them as you are able)  Anyways, it probably isn’t a surprise that you would think about death, but what may surprise you is how deeply you contemplate and face LIFE in those moments- your life, it’s circumstances, the people who are in it, the decisions you have made, etc.

Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist, wouldn’t have been surprised as he developed a psychosocial model of development through the lifespan- culminating in the final stage of ego integrity vs despair.  This stage is characterized by reflecting on our accomplishments and determining if we have lived a life which feels purposeful and complete, leading to wisdom and integrity; or if have we lived in a way which feels incomplete or unfinished, leading to despair.  While he intended that stage mostly for the elderly, if you are facing a life threatening condition- you likely will go into that reflective place, and with any luck have the ability to make changes, so that your life is more in line with your values.

For me, this happened in the 5th month of chemo, when my body was battered and we kept having to delay chemo treatments because the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets were in trouble.  While I still was working, I pretty much was in bed any time that I could be.  Having my platelets drop to the low 40s and ending up in the ER because of heart palpitations, caused me to deeply reflect about what I wanted for my family if I did not make it.  I’m not sure that I truly felt like I was going to die, but certain priorities became paramount and my attention focused onto what I needed to do.  This was one way of coping with that death anxiety.

The changes we made were significant, but when I think about the other women I met in support communities and their stories of going through treatment and getting divorced, changing careers, losing or leaving significant relationships with family and friends, all because these circumstances were toxic to their health.  Having cancer meant that they could no longer afford to sacrifice themselves in the way that they once had.  They had come to that moment of clarity and said, “the cost of staying in this situation is too high”.  I was awestruck by what a catalyst cancer could be for taking a stand and valuing themselves, and while the changes were often filled with emotional pain, fear and challenges- the boost to their own self worth, dignity, and integrity was a beautiful thing to observe.

So while it may seem shocking to family and friends, don’t be surprised by the impact having a life threatening condition may have on your life.  Seek the resources and supports you need to think about what your needs are and what you wish to do about them.  As I wrote in the prior post, having a life threatening condition asks us to live more boldly than we have lived before.  The one thing we know we have is this very moment, and it has the ability to be one of the greatest teachers you may ever have the honor to meet.

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of of the heart.”

― Pema Chödrön
– 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 an individual program, in person or via Skype, teaching art and meditation; workshops; and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.