Healing Self 0 comments on Compilation of our greatest hits… a blog review

Compilation of our greatest hits… a blog review

Hey all! It happens to be a school vacation week, and I am taking some time with the family. I have been looking through the blogs that I have written thus far, and I thought this week I might highlight a few of my favorite ones.

As I look forward to planning an editorial calendar, I would love to hear from you about questions or concerns you would like to see me address.  You may comment below or send me an email.  Let’s connect!

Healing the Body: Milestones. Anniversaries, & how the body reminds us

Healing the Mind: For when you feel left behind

Healing the Spirit: The dance of the infinite and finite following a cancer diagnosis

Healing the Self: Rebuilding self-confidence following a cancer diagnosis

Healing via Creativity/Survivorship: Digging out from the aftermath of cancer

Until next week,

Stephanie

– 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, Healing Spirit, Intimacy and Parenting 0 comments on When the waves of grief come…

When the waves of grief come…

As we have identified, no one goes through cancer unscathed. Recently, this has been coming up in a number of different ways- personally, it is seeing the lingering impact on my youngest son who was 5 and starting kindergarten when I was diagnosed. Knowing that I couldn’t fully protect him from that experience- and the lingering stress that follows, is something that weighs heavy on my heart.

Another way that it has come up is related to survivor guilt.  From my perspective, survivor guilt manifests from the experience of watching people we love go through cancer treatment and/or having them die from cancer.

Just like someone who walks away from a plane crash, we wonder why were spared and they were not… we feel helpless to soothe their loved ones… we feel badly when we are not fully grateful… the list goes on and on.

Yet, we are tribal people and we need the connection to others who have been there… being connected is a crucial component of healing AND it also asks us to confront how unjust life can be, how little control we have over outcomes, the mortality of others and ourselves…  As Robert Neimeyer wrote:

We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. How we negotiate that tension shapes who we become.

To be fully alive and present, we need to find ways to allow ourselves to process the many losses that come along with life. Death is certainly a loss and a grief process that we see as valid, although we frequently underestimate the time needed to fully grieve. All endings, not just death, have components of grief and loss, in part because when something comes to an end, we reflect upon the experience and the thoughts, feelings and expectations we had about it.

Grieving when you are also experiencing survivor guilt becomes more complex, because we share the common experience of having cancer and thus inevitably we think about ourselves.  The tension that comes from trying to do both can cause us to shut down, withdraw, become overwhelmed, judge ourselves… and this tension can easily go unnoticed and underground.

The taboos about talking about death and dying, the difficulty of honoring our own process and needs when we know someone “has it worse”, our tendency to compare and to ruminate about things that are out of our control…

All of these things add to the shroud of silence that often accompanies the waves of grief. For the waves of grief inevitably come with the gift of life.  As the quote from Havelock Ellis in the meme above reminds us:

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on

In order to walk through our survival guilt, our grief, we need to find small ways that we can practice letting go and holding on. When we do this, we find the ability to release the tension that keeps us stuck and unable to be fully embody what we have been through. When we do this, we begin to find the ability to be alive and connected to ourselves and to those we love, learning to surf the waves despite the challenges we and our loved ones face.

Tell me, what is a small gesture or act you can do right now to practice letting go and holding on? I’d love to hear it, shoot me an email, send me a PM or write below. XO

– 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, Survivorship 0 comments on The art of self advocacy

The art of self advocacy

This topic feels like a natural follow up to last week’s blog, Cancer is not just a medical problem. But before we get into the subject, I just want to take a moment to share a personal celebration with you…

This is my 100th blog!!!!

I started Creative Transformations 2 years and 6 days ago (more or less!), and when I began I knew that in addition services I offer, I wanted to write a weekly blog that would explore the emotional healing process of cancer survivors. It feels really good to know that thus far I have met my goal, and that hopefully these blogs have had a positive impact on you, my readers. Thanks for being there and for celebrating this moment with me.

Self advocacy is an important part of cancer treatment because cancer treatment is an ever evolving process, and it involves the expertise and input of multiple providers. Research and statistics about treatment approaches and efficacy are important, yet ultimately we are all unique and thus we are the experts on our body, mind, spirit and sense of self. While we may feel trepidations about it, we hold the role of expert at the table, and hopefully your treatment team embraces that.

Yet being an advocate for yourself is often easier said than done.  Here are some common barriers that complicate this process:

  • the stress level that comes with having a cancer diagnosis– the shock, dismay, anger, fear that we feel impacts our ability to process information and communicate our thoughts, feelings, and concerns
  • the whack cancer takes to our sense of self confidence– in part due to the fact that it directly challenges any notion of control that we might have felt we had prior to those awful words
  • the willingness of our treatment team to view us as an expert of our own experience– research shows that having trust in your providers is important to the treatment experience and outcome, so if providers prefer a top-down, hierarchical approach, they may be unwilling to see you as an expert on you. Sometimes we can change our team, sometimes we can’t.  This post is designed to offer guidance either way.
  • our personality traits and communication styles– for someone who is more passive, feeling able to speak up and be direct about your needs, especially when you feel vulnerable, is a true challenge when you add cancer to the mix. For those who are more aggressive, power struggles often emerge and impede clear communication and processing of the information being shared.  Even those of us who are comfortable being assertive can struggle.  The psychological reasons why will be explored below.

Beyond the above mentioned barriers, lie the underlying psychological components that often come up when someone is thinking about advocating for themselves:

  • self doubt– or trusting your instinct in the face of an authority figure
  • self worth– or believing in your right to ask questions, challenge plans, asking for second opinions, etc.
  • vulnerability– or having to tolerate uncertainty while asserting a concern, need, opinion, etc.
  • feeling overwhelmed– this is an overarching feeling coming from many angles, but one particular cause of concern that is directly related to advocacy is the necessity of being able to process and understand the information related to the disease and treatment, while also needing to make major life decisions that are incredibly time sensitive
  • fear of offending, angering or risking the relationship with your provider, someone who is essential to your survival and wellbeing– this is especially challenging if you do not have a good support system and/or there is limited choices for providers in your area
  • guilt or shame about having cancer in the first place, especially if we feel like our own choices/actions were “responsible” for creating the illness

And so forth.  Just like a reality show, it always looks easier from the viewpoint of the spectator, and thus can further impact our ability to be our own advocates.

This doesn’t mean that it is hopeless at all, it just highlights the importance of seeking support ASAP. Local cancer community centers, the social worker connected to your treatment team, therapists and coaches who specialize in cancer, are all options to consider for getting support.

As a cancer coach, the impact of my knowledge and personal experience always helps to ground my clients, and together we craft a plan to build the muscle of self advocacy.  I know it can get old to think of cancer as a transformative experience, but I do see it time and time again. While we may not have asked for it, celebrating how we become stronger in the face of adversity is important.

– 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 When cancer impacts your connection to the activities you love

When cancer impacts your connection to the activities you love

This topic of feeling like you have lost yourself after being diagnosed and treated for cancer is a big one.  It’s one of the top reasons why people seek my services.  It deserves to be fully explored, today we are going to unpack how it impacts the connection to the activities we love.

When you think about where you are today, how does it compare to life “B.C” (ie before cancer)? Taking stock of the ways in which we have grown is valuable, as it helps to keep us feeling empowered… yet we must also allow ourselves to acknowledge the various struggles and losses in order to heal emotionally.

Prior to having cancer, I was a Zumba fanatic. I used to go multiple days a week, and my body craved the workout that it gave me. I felt strong and alive with the workout.

What I found interesting was 6 months prior to my diagnosis, my love of Zumba began to wane. Initially I chalked it up to wanting something new in my workout, which was probably a part of it. Mostly I think this began to happen because I was starting to get sick, because the Triple Negative tumor was rapidly growing.

I still attend Zumba, but it is not quite the same. I find that even though I continue to exercise on a regular basis, I can’t quite seem to reach the oomph that I once had. Perhaps it is because my focus is shifting to newer needs post cancer, but somehow it feels deeper than that.

This reminds me of a conversation that I had with a male cancer patient, who had been a full time artist until his diagnosis. His eyes were teary as he described how he can no longer go into his studio. This shift happened in part because he associated his studio with hearing that he had cancer, but I think that it also may have been related to how cancer impacts our identity and our ability to do things as we once did them.

Why is it that cancer survivors find it hard to reclaim the activities we have loved? When we love something it is often a part of what brings meaning into our lives.  We experience joy, triumph, connection, accomplishment, purpose.  Doing something that we love creates a connection to feeling alive.

Facing cancer means that on some level, conscious or not, we are facing the four universal fears: the fear of dying, the fear of being alone, the fear that life is meaningless, and the fear of losing our freedom. Engaging in activities that we love would seem to be the antidote to facing these fears,  yet for most of us we need to process what has happened in order to re-engage with life again.

We need to process it, because confronting the universal fears are not something that just turns off.  These fears ask us to confront the deepest vulnerabilities that life has to offer.  In this regard, the activities and people that we love can paradoxically remind us of the universal fears because they represent that which we stand to lose.

If you want to be able to reconnect with what you love, then you need to find a way to accept and process what you have been through.  We cannot fully have one without the other.  This is one of the reasons why the emotional healing process from cancer is so tricky.  To learn more about PTSD post cancer diagnosis, read this blog I wrote: PTSD and the cancer warrior.

As Pema Chodron reminds us:

The next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you’re feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in…we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves.

I realize that this is much easier said than done. No one is fully equipped to face the universal fears. It is why this resides at the heart of my work, together we can find a way to walk through the broken shards, to allow them to be witnessed and released, to find our way back to authentic joy, contentment, and to reclaim, adjust, release and discover activities that bring fulfillment.

– 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 Self, Healing Spirit 0 comments on Finding Inspiration

Finding Inspiration

This week my thoughts keep circling back to the importance of inspiration… I like to think of inspiration as the energetic fuel that keeps us going when we are going through times of great transition and change.  The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that bostlers our spirit.

Inspiration also means the act of drawing air into the lungs.  Air, naturally, is the most basic need that we have for survival.  Therefore, inspiration not only is perhaps the fuel for our spirit, but also the fuel for our bodies.

When we practice the art of mindful breathing- or inspiration- we practice the art of being in the NOW.  Being able to stay in the present is so valuable for our ever busy minds, that wish to dash off and dash away from the present. Thus we have inspiration to thank for calming the mind.

When we feel inspired, when we are breathing, when we are finding a stillness in our mind and body, we find our way back to ourselves.  We might not always recognize the person we find, because cancer can impact us in fundamental ways, but for most of us there is at least a glimmer of who we have always considered ourselves to be.  Especially if we focus on the act of simply being with our breath.

You don’t have to do extraordinary things to connect with inspiration, although it is always inspiring to see examples of authenticity and bravery- like the remarkable breast cancer survivors who walked the catwalk this week at New York fashion week, representing AnaOno Intimates. Or the story of Patti McCarthy who hiked through cancer treatment in order to keep herself reminded of her passions, “A passion that would let me live life, and not be swallowed up by cancer”.

Whatever form it might take, take some time to find inspiration.  Feed yourself, feed your soul and share it with others as a reminder to breathe.

As Marty Rubin reminds us:

Sometimes just breathing is enough

And I might add- the only thing that is possible for you at this time…

– 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 Self 0 comments on Finding ease by starting from the inside

Finding ease by starting from the inside

Cancer survivors are an inspiring group of people, we face an illness that most people feel terrified to even contemplate. Although we know that there is not much choice in the matter, it is still quite a feat.

To face the diagnosis and its treatment, we go into survival mode, which means our focus has to become laser sharp, one foot in front of the other- tuning out (or attempting to) unnecessary distractions because we need every ounce of energy that we can muster.

However, while this may be effective in getting us through diagnosing and treatment, if we don’t allow ourselves to ease out of fight or flight mode, the tension we hold onto mentally and physically takes a significant toll. Tension is the physical manifestation of stress.

The first time I noticed a shift in my body following the conclusion of treatment, was observing my internal response to preparing for the final surgeries.  This was approximately 4 months after active treatment ended.  Even though I was going to physical therapy weekly, I had not realized the extent to which my body was beginning to release from it’s high alert mode.

The update that I wrote to my community of support described this awareness unfolding:

What has struck me recently about this experience was recognizing how my body has begun to feel more private again. Going through treatment- there is this way in which your body becomes public, with the multitude of medical intervention, attention and examination. To get through it, you have to detach to a certain degree because most of us don’t live under that level of scrutiny on a regular basis. To be in touch with each time it is poked, prodded, etc would be exhausting. Not to mention that the physical changes, like total hair loss, announce to anyone paying attention “I’m sick!”. It can be a bit overwhelming. So, while ultimately I know this upcoming procedure is going to be much easier than everything else, I have thankfully lost a little bit of that “thick skin” which does make me feel a bit more vulnerable to it all.

That last line, feeling more vulnerable to it all, is why we have such a hard time transitioning from a survival mode to a relaxation mode.  In order to be successful, we have to face the innate vulnerability that comes with facing a life threatening circumstance.  Releasing tension involves accepting our vulnerability, and this is not like a light switch that can be flicked on and off.

Therefore, by beginning with the body, working from the inside out, we can begin to practice the art of releasing and finding ease. It is through the body that we can begin to relax our mind.

Independent of where we are in our cancer treatment process, by starting off with short periods of time, we gently introduce feeling respite and safety to the body. We build a sanctuary within.

In a nutshell, we can begin to reconnect with our body through scanning it and then using our intention to invite more ease.  Some common options are body scans, hatha yoga, and progressive muscle relaxations.  To build an artistic practice, read my blog about cellular meditation.

There are so many resources, thanks to the internet, and I have attached a few options that I found.  Of course, if you have a local center that offers wellness resources for cancer survivors, they frequently offer classes and services that will assist you on your way.  These centers come with the added benefit of meeting other cancer survivors, decreasing our isolation.

– 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.