Healing Self 0 comments on Let’s make space for the elephants

Let’s make space for the elephants

Elephants are such majestic creatures, and I suppose it is their size that made them a great metaphor for the discomfort that comes from ignoring the elephant in the room.

I’m tired of the elephants being ignored- it does not serve you or me, in fact, I spend a lot of my worklife talking about the deep pain that one has when the elephant is being ignored, unacknowledged, dismissed, devalued, diminished…

We all deserve to be included, especially the elephants- because often they represent our most vulnerable selves. Since cancer reminds you that no one has a guarantee as to how long you will be on this planet, you no longer tolerate neglecting yourself or avoiding hard conversations- because one day there won’t be any more opportunity to have them.

Yet making space to have them is a whole other ball of wax, because while you might be motivated to unleash those elephants- your loved ones might not be. Pushing the boundaries of taboo subjects is always challenging- and when you throw in the profound undercurrent of uncertainty that cancer brings- it can drive you or someone you love to avoid, repress, dismiss, etc. even more avidly than before.

My advice is to begin with an invitation- an invitation to acknowledge the elephant. It is normal to be anxious about breaking down and breaking through, and it may not go well. But if the energy is presented as an invitation, that may be gentle enough to calm the defense mechanisms to find a place to begin.

Pre-work is often vital to making a successful invitation, unpacking your own feelings about this elephant and how it has impacted your relationship. This is a great time to break out the art journal and reflective writing AND a great time to get support from a trusted friend, therapist, group. Not only is this excellent self care, self validation, and building self understanding, but it will help prevent you from roaring into the conversation like a lion, due to your own vulnerable feelings.

Here are some of the most prominent elephants out there, related to cancer:

  • facing the fear of dying, of being alone
  • changes in sexual functioning and intimacy
  • body image and self worth
  • feeling abandoned by our treatment team
  • feeling hurt by how our support system reacted to our cancer diagnosis, treatment, etc
  • fear of the future, fear of cancer recurrence and growth
  • separation and isolation- feeling left out of the “sea of normalcy”- especially when you are Stage 4

And so forth.

To invite the elephants in, you need to grow your capacity to be with your vulnerability, your ability to stand with life as it is, discerning when you need walls of protection AND when you don’t. Walls are important to have with people who are toxic. Yet they also serve to cut us off from being deeply connected to sources of love, compassion, connection. Developing the ability to discern who it is safe to let in, begins with developing a deep connection to yourself- so that you can trust your instinct about people you meet.

I leave you this week with a wonderful Ted Talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability.

-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 Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Reminder: put your nipples on

Reminder: put your nipples on

In just a few short days, my family and I will be flying to Spain, to see my husband’s family. As you might imagine, we are in the midst of the final push for getting ready- which means lots and lots of to-do lists. This time, I have an additional to do that was never there before- to put on my nipples.

As my breast cancer peeps can relate, this item is a crucial one towards feeling more like yourself again. There are many options- but I chose silicone, paste on nipples, after meeting Michelle- the owner and creator of Pink Perfect. She offers “ready to wear” nipples in every tone, shade, shape and size as well as custom made nipples for women who have a single mastectomy and wish to match their native nipple. I highly recommend her products!

It has been 11 years since we have gone back to Spain as a family, the last time we were there my oldest child was 5 months old. My mother-in-law was so proud, she fell in love with him and was so impressed by how rolly polly he was. She would exclaim to everyone one we came across that she knew (which feels like half the population of the small city that she lives in)- “SOLO TETA”. Solo teta translates to “just breast” in English- and in this case breast milk. She wanted everyone to understand that my body was fully responsible for creating such an exquisite child- and her praise made me laugh and smile at the same time.

It has been 20 years since my husband and I married in Spain, we were only 24 at the time. In those twenty years we have had a lifetime of experiences, we were caregiver to my mom before she died from metastatic breast cancer, both of our fathers have died, we created two children, we both obtained advanced degrees, I had cancer… it was never our intention to go so long between visits to Spain, but the curveballs kept coming and we had to keep recalibrating. Although we might have preferred a less tumultuous time line, we have nevertheless become more resilient for sticking through it together.

I have a feeling that this time, my mother-in-law will still be proud, and perhaps she will exclaim- No Tetas (no breasts) to everyone we pass, since that has changed since our last visit. If she does, I will celebrate right alongside her, with my paste on nipples and silicone boobs- because I am very lucky to have this chance to return again to a land I love. Something that could have been robbed from me had the cancer treatment not kicked cancer’s ass.

As I soak in this experience of a lifetime, the chance to be present with my husband and children as they encounter a major piece of their heritage, the chance to hug and kiss all of the wonderful family and friends we have there, the chance to return to my second home… I will be absorbing it with the deep appreciation for life that cancer has brought me, knowing that life can change on a dime.

This practice- of drinking in the moment with my body, mind, spirit, and self is something that we can all cultivate as an homage to the value of being alive. I wonder- what are your special moments and places (big or small) that bring you fully alive? I would love it if you would share them with me, either in the comments below or by email.

-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 Body, Healing Self 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 Self, Survivorship 0 comments on How resistance ups the pain point with Scanxiety

How resistance ups the pain point with Scanxiety

Last week I wrote about scanxiety, and from the numbers related to how many people read it, this topic was a popular one. I think in part that it is popular not only because scanxiety creates a lot of distress for cancer survivors, but also because it is undeniably related to having cancer.

There are so many subtle ways that you are impacted by cancer, that often you might question or doubt your own intuition when those subtle disturbances bother you. One tool I can offer to begin to uncover these subtle and not so subtle disturbances is the free survivorship assessment tool, available here.

I have yet to meet a cancer survivor who was confused about the relationship with scanxiety.

This week I wanted to explore how resistance contributes to the intensity of scanxiety. It is so normal that when we have experienced something scary, painful, life altering, that reminders of what happened to us are unwelcome. It is a natural urge for you to want to avoid, deny, distract from that reminder, especially because it brings up your unfinished business with what has happened.

While you might get temporary relief from resisting the unfinished business that scanxiety stirs, in the long run if you don’t find a way to come into awareness and acceptance that it exists, it is going to reinforce the potency of your reaction. I wrote a blog about how our body, mind and spirit needs to “off-gas”, or in other words- identify, process, and let go, in order to heal from PTSD. I used the metaphor of off-gassing because there is nothing pleasant about it, but sometimes humor lightens the load. You can read that blog by clicking here.

Resistance does have a place when you are in survival mode, because it can help you compartmentalize. Like all things in life, it’s knowing when you have crossed the line from useful to potentially harmful.

To successfully navigate the trap of resistance, you need to find the counterpoint to it, which in my mind is brining in acceptance. To bridge the gap of resistance to acceptance, you need to find ways to lower your defenses while giving yourself lots and lots of support (or asking for and receiving lots and lots of support).

This is not an easy task, which means that you likely need to invite compassion into the party, because if your tendency is to try to judge, critique or control yourself through a deeply emotional moment, it’s not going to work.

I also realize that tackling the mountain by expecting myself to jump to the top of it, is not going to get the results I want. You may have no idea of how you can ease your resistance to the inevitable scanxiety that comes- and that’s OK.

Perhaps you can redirect your reflection to a different moment in your life, in which you moved from resistance to acceptance. Do you remember what you did to support yourself through it? Do you remember how it felt before, during, and after? This is going to be a trial and error period for sure, but I am a big advocate of the belief that everyone has transferable skills- you sometimes need to approach a situation from a completely unexpected angle to get the results you seek.

I would love to hear what ideas you have for sleuthing this dilemma. Feel free to comment below or shoot me an email if that is more of your style.

Until next week!

-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 Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Moving through the habits that keep us stuck

Moving through the habits that keep us stuck

When you have been through something traumatic, like having cancer, it’s common to develop habits around managing the leftovers from the experience. When you are fearing that cancer could return, it is really difficult to see constant reminders of what you have been through. Like surgery scars, missing hair, brain fog, and so forth.

Yet, if you want to really feel like you’ve moved beyond the experience of having cancer, you are going to have to address those habits at some point. While these habits might initially help you avoid discomfort, in the long run that avoidance amplifies the unprocessed pain that we have been through and can cause you to feel more anxious or depressed, rather than less.

One example that comes to mind is the story of a client who came in to experience art as therapy. She was a young breast cancer survivor with three children, someone who had been able to reach the coveted NED status- no evidence of disease. She felt appreciative of being cancer free, yet experienced a lot of anxiety about cancer coming back.

In our work together, she was able to identify how she avoided fully washing her chest, because she was afraid that she would find a lump again. We explored this through art, her experience of avoidance and fear, and I guided her to use the art to see how she might be able to support herself. Through this guidance, she was able to connect with the color yellow, as a warm, safe and supportive color.

The change was visible as she drew the yellow color around her image of anxiety and fear. Her body began to relax, her shoulders help less tension. I suggested that she bring in the energy of yellow with her the next time she showered, and she found it to be highly effective in breaking the avoidance behavior while also feeling less anxiety about washing.

It was a significant step towards reclaiming her connection towards feeling safe again in her body. The anxiety and fear that had been driving her to avoid was less dominant, allowing her to decrease the tension without having to control the outcome. Since cancer is a reminder that you don’t have total control, taking steps towards accepting that through actively supporting yourself can decrease the distress that comes as you face what is causing you fear.

Next week I am going to be releasing my free self assessment tool that I have developed to help you identify the ways in which cancer has impacted your body, mind, spirit, and self. It will come with the link to the virtual workshop: Back to Life Back to Reality: Decoding Cancer Survivorship. That is a space limited workshop, which will allow a lot of time for participants to share with one another in addition to learning how to move forward. So stay tuned!

-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 Self 0 comments on For the love of Libby

For the love of Libby

Today is Mother’s Day in the US, a day which can be bittersweet for the cancer community. As a cancer survivor with children who lost my own mom from cancer in my mid 20s, I have experienced the highs and lows that this day brings. I am sending out a virtual hug to all of my fellow survivors who have lost their moms, who have lost the ability to become a mom, or who fear that they will leave their own children far, far before they are ready.

Libby was my mom’s nickname, a nickname which really captured the warmth of her spirit. She was adventurous, passionate, a conservationist with a stubborn streak. She taught me many important values, she was always supportive, and she always challenged me to figure stuff out for myself. I recall how frustrated I used to get when she would make me get the dictionary to look up how to spell a word, rather than providing me with the answer.  Although that is a rather small example, it certainly was representative of how she taught me to be independent and capable of solving problems with guidance.

This year will be the third time I have participated in the Tri for a Cure, a local, all female triathlon that raises money for the Maine Cancer Foundation. When I was thinking about team names, For the Love of Libby. jumped into my mind. While she has been a part of each of my races, it felt so appropriate that this year I would focus my efforts exclusively in honor of her memory. After all, for many of my fellow cancer survivors, our attention is often focused on all of the wonderful people we know who have or have had cancer. It is our nature to feel deep empathy for the ones we love.

Life is frequently unfair, a diagnosis like cancer takes away our innocence and asks us to face the unthinkable. I would give anything to have more time with my mom, yet as I follow in her footsteps, through motherhood, through cancer, I realize she continues to guide me forward, through the lessons and memories she embedded into my essence.

I could not be more thankful for how she continues to show up.