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.

Healing Mind, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on The cascading effect of being reminded

The cascading effect of being reminded

Last summer, I followed Joan Lunden’s #stillsurviving campaign, and I remember the reaction I had when I saw her beautiful photo from her final day of chemo.  As a fellow TNBC survivor, I could see the complex emotions within her eyes- because the ending of chemo is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  It feels wonderful to know that you don’t have to put any more poison into your body, but scary because you shift from actively fighting a disease to praying for it to not recur.

My body was struggling in the 5th month of my chemo, and so treatment ended abruptly, 4 Taxol treatments and 1 Carboplatin treatment short of the initial plan.  I was so disappointed, it kind of felt like I had come close to the summit of an incredibly high peak and said- “meh, close enough”!  I even went through a period of envy when I would see people’s final day of chemo photos- with their signs, their celebrating loved ones- ringing the bell.  I missed the “graduation ceremony” and it was a bummer.  Of course, I was mostly relieved because I was no longer going to be slogging through the chemo side effects.  And I needed to be healthy enough to have the mastectomy, which almost had to be postponed as my immune system struggled to kick a virus I had developed.

Yet, clearly I still had some things to process, because it all came pouring back when I saw Joan Lunden’s photo.  This cascading of sensory information was not terribly intense, but it reminded me of how powerful, and possibly overwhelming it can be, when you are in the midst of experiencing it.  When you have been through something traumatic like cancer, this cascading process is likely to repeat itself, over and over again, until you come to some point of resolution.

This is why I am such an advocate of using the arts to capture this process.  Using art helps to slow it down while simultaneously making it more concrete- more visible, so that we feel like we have tangible material to work with.  When you are in the midst of a cascading recollection, it’s like multiple sensory switches have been flicked on all at once.  Unless you are a rockstar at remaining fully grounded and Zen no matter what is thrown at you, you are going to want to have support.

Grabbing that visual journal and drawing out what you are experiencing offers a snapshot into the complexity of the experience.  And once you have captured it, you have a choice- to either walk away and give yourself a break, or to begin to break it apart, observe it and ultimately make meaning from it.  There is no right or wrong answer, especially when we attend to what our needs are in the present.

If you are curious about learning this process, set up a free consultation with me and we can discuss the potential of working together.  And until next week, happy Thursday!

– 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, Healing Self 0 comments on Becoming empowered even in the face of uncertainty

Becoming empowered even in the face of uncertainty

Raise your hand if after you heard the words “you have cancer”, you did a lot of soul searching to figure out what you did to cause it.  It’s a natural impulse to look for reasons, but so often there is no easy answer.  Our actions and efforts can help to support our health in many ways, but they do not guarantee outcomes.  That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially if you have always tried to do the right thing.

When we base our security upon a belief that we are powerful when we are in control, we are left feeling highly vulnerable in this life. This is a common concern for those of us who have faced life threatening circumstances, because it is a natural response to want to have control when we face traumatic/life threatening situations.  Our brains are wired for survival, which means they can become hyper-vigilant about what is a threat to our safety.  Sometimes our brains get it right, but so often they attach meaning to innocuous things.

When we attempt to deal with a life threatening situation though logic or by trying to just “move on”, rather than processing it, our feelings can become the number one threat to our sense of control- and thus we spend a lot of time repressing those feelings.

Logic and rational thinking are important tools, but they are not omnipotent. Our feelings are the gatekeepers to our deepest wisdom, our intuition, and for the healing process.  They hold the material of our experience.  They are the messengers that want to be heard.  Even if they threaten our perception of control, they are the ones that will guide us through the experience.  They hold up the red flag, warn us that if we continue to try and control them rather than feel through them, we run the risk of damaging ourselves.

An empowered, resilient person is someone who can accept and respond to life and it’s curve balls.  Someone who does not need to control every moment in order to feel secure.  Someone who is connected to their core self, their emotions and who is present to what is happening.

Increasing your capacity to be empowered and resilient is something that we can all do, it is not a static process but something that evolves throughout the lifespan.

In fact, working on feeling empowered and resilient is ideal when you are facing a life threatening situation, because you will have ample opportunity to try it out and assess how you are doing.  Here are a few tips of where to begin:

  • Learn to slow down, when we are anxious or speeding around we keep the tension/adrenaline coursing through our bodies and this limits our ability to stay connected to ourselves
  • Allow your emotions to flow, when we become adept at experiencing our feelings as they occur they are less likely to build up inside ourselves and become overwhelming.  Imagine your feelings as messengers who need to simply alert you to important information
  • Revise your expectations, expectations are future based, which means they are predictions/guesses.  Even if you are an excellent strategist, it is impossible to know in advance everything, not only will this keep you engaged in trying to control, you might even miss information/opportunities that could help you if it does not match what you predicted.
  • Find ways to increase your sense of safety, this is so important, because when we are in a crisis we need to accept our circumstances and then value ourselves enough to create as much safety as we can.  Having a solid relationship with your medical team, spending time with loved ones who are compassionate, setting boundaries with those who are not capable of being supportive, connecting to others who are going through something similar- these are some examples of building safety even when danger exists.

You don’t need to do this in isolation.  For those of us who have prior histories of trauma or family dysfunction, becoming empowered may feel like a tall order.  If you are struggling, it’s an ideal time to engage in therapy.  If you’ve never been in therapy before, talk with your medical team as they will likely be able to connect you with resources.

– 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, Healing Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Feeling lost? Let your instinct be your guide

Being lost or sitting with confusion can be a very uncomfortable experience. It rubs right at that notion of being able to be in control of our destiny. Sometimes, this experience of being lost is very large and looming, like when we know we are at a fork in the road and need to chose between two paths. But more often than not, we are confronted with smaller, more ambiguous states of confusion such as “how do I feel today?”

When you are going through a life threatening condition, the rug often feels ripped out from underneath you. It can impact every aspect of our life, and finding comfort or security can feel like an impossible task.

In these moments, worry, anxiety or panic can easily settle in- or perhaps a sense of helplessness or depression. It’s an intriguing place to be- on one hand we might feel lulled into the comfort of at least feeling a concrete emotion, but if we can sit with the confusion we might just be lucky enough to make contact with our deepest wisdom- our own instinct.

Our instinct is characterized by the notion of a “gut feeling”. If we are fortunate, we were raised by parents who supported out intuitive wisdom and thus we build a healthy relationship with our gut feelings. If we weren’t, it is imperative that we begin to support ourselves through confusion in order to rebuild the lines of communication with our gut feeling.

Some of my most satisfying moments as a therapist are when I see someone reconnect with their gut feeling. There is often a look of wonderment on the person’s face, an experience of recognizing how wise they truly are.  It is an honor to witness.

In guiding a person to make contact, I often imagine myself tip-toeing into their heart to plant a seed of trust and capability. While I might have the honor of planting it, it is my client’s hard work and belief in themselves that allows it to grow.

However, since being diagnosed with a life threatening condition hits at the core of our sense of safety, it takes everyone time to rebuild trust. If this theme is pertinent to you today, take some time to dialogue with yourself about what is blocking it. And if that little voice deep inside starts to speak, honor it by listening.

– 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 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, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on How long will it take?

How long will it take?

Given my line of work, I often get the question- how long?  It is always in reference to some form of suffering.  How long will it take?  How long will it take until I feel better? How long until I no longer feel triggered all the time? How long will it take until I feel like myself again?  Will I ever feel like myself again?

My heart always goes out to the person who is asking it, because to me it is always an indication of the deep need that is there and an indication that the person is prepared to start the process, which is a very vulnerable time.  Understandably, reassurance is what we seek.  My answer is always the same… I don’t know how long it will take you, but I know that you will get through it by allowing yourself to do two things: lean in (ie experience the feelings) and let go (ie process them).

When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I had been going to therapy to address issues from my childhood.  While that work was cut short by needing to move home, it began an important part of my healing.  After she died, I found a new therapist who helped me to hold myself together when I felt like I was being torn apart.  But it wasn’t until I began my master’s program in art therapy that I finally found the tools I needed to fully engage and release the grief that I felt.  I spent a good 6-9 months with a nightly practice of visual art journalling, in which I leaned into the feelings and let go of them by expressing them through shape, color and form.  And then I spent the remainder of my time studying and examining the nature of grief, attachment, and identity.

The death of my mom made me acutely aware of the many ways we experience loss throughout the lifespan, which often get overlooked as they are not related directly to death.  The loss of innocence, the loss of friendships, when we finish/end a life stage, the loss of intimate/romantic relationships, and so forth.  In between the death of my mother and graduate school, I worked for a domestic violence agency in their shelter, and I came to realize that it was often the persons inability to tolerate the grieving process of leaving their abusive partner that lead them to return to the relationship.  It wasn’t a sign of weakness that they could not tolerate grieving, it was a sign that we desperately need to learn how to grieve in order to heal.  This is what drove me towards needing to figure it out, both for myself and for those whom I wished to serve.

I realize that a lot of trust is involved in this process, trust that if you lean in and let go that it really will be more helpful rather than harmful.  We have a natural tendency to pull away from pain.  If this lack of trust is really inhibiting you- create an exit strategy if you find yourself getting in over your head.  Most people won’t actually find themselves in that space, but if you are worried, than it is important to take that into concern to heart and honor it by responding to it.

If you are skeptical, become a scientist.  Observe how you feel before, during, and after this process of leaning in and letting go.  No true hypothesis can be fully vetted until you have run the experiment for a good chunk of time, so set a daily goal for X amount of days and see what happens.  As those sassy memes like to remind us: “Wow, I really regret that workout today- said no one ever”.  The same is true for this process of emotional processing, because when we show up for ourselves, it is an act of self love.

– 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, Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on Stressful conversations

Stressful conversations

Being diagnosed with a life threatening illness certainly amps up the stress levels for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the most functional humans out there are going to experience a wide variety of physical and emotional responses to this major life event.  It can set up a cascade of reactions, and in the midst of it all are conversations that need to be had- with medical providers, insurance companies, immediate and extended family, friends, coworkers and colleagues, and the various community locales where we, and our family, live and work.  For myself, some of the earliest challenges were wondering what to say to my children in the midst of facing uncertain times.

When we are under a lot of pressure, it is easy to have miscommunication and misunderstanding.  We often forget that as humans our personal response to stress is likely to be very different from our immediate loved ones, and we can quickly make assumptions that aren’t accurate.  Not to mention that while we may have pledged our fidelity and loyalty to someone, very few of us have truly tested out the “in sickness and in health” promise, and since death anxiety is a core universal fear- it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response at a time where our resources to stay grounded are likely depleted.

It is not uncommon to see that those whom we thought might be our biggest allies seem to disappear; whereas, others whom you might not have thought would come forward do in a significant way.  This sets up an interesting dichotomy, on one hand there is a feeling of loss and on the other hand there is a swell of faith in the power of compassion.  At some point it will be important to be able to express feelings related to the abandonment, and some relationships might end; however, it is important to give it time and to try and re-direct thoughts of wanting to take this personally- as so often it is more about that person’s fear rather than about you personally.

Our stress can leak out into a variety of conversations- not just with our loved ones.  It can impact our friendships, colleagues or capacity to relate with the medical team.  It is important to think about finding a good fit with a medical team and support system- as trust is at the core of having a solid working relationship; however, the crisis of diagnosis and treatment often forces us to confront the parts of ourselves and our relationships that need work- the parts we often avoid until we can no longer do so.

Beth Eilers, LCSW, of Healthful Counseling and myself have designed a workshop to look at the different aspects of ourselves that influence how we manage stress (for example, personality type and attachment style) and offer tools to increase our ability to observe, understand and then share with our loved ones.  If you live locally, we are offering the workshop at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine, on May 4,2017.  Click here to register.

If you don’t live locally and are struggling with this topic, it may be time to reach out to your medical team to inquire about resources they may have available to you, or search for a psychotherapist who has experience working with significant medical issues.  The individual program offered through Creative Transformations offers tools to help to slow down your reactions and gain distance from them in order to re-engage the observing self.  Contact us if you would like to explore how.

– 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.