Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Cancer’s compromising positions

Cancer’s compromising positions

Yes, this is cheeky innuendo, and yes, this post is about sexuality and how the impact of cancer interventions put you into compromising positions regarding the long term side effects.

No one lines up at menopause’s or castration’s table and says “Ooo Ooo… pick me, pick me!”.

However, if you are positive for the  BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation, this is the life changing decision that we have the privilege of making preventatively; unlike our ovarian, prostate, and testicular cancer brothers and sisters.

I know that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I certainly wrestled with the fact that I did not get tested for genetic mutations. I had learned I was a candidate for testing at 30, but the thought that the only clear answer would be knowing I had a mutation terrified me.  Having lost my mom to breast cancer in my 20s, I was already struggling with whether or not I should have children, and that knowledge would have made it worse.  I know I am so lucky to have had the chance to become a mom.

However, while I wish I could have prevented myself from having breast cancer in the first place, I knew that I needed to take steps to prevent ovarian cancer. I underwent an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes) the same day that I got my new boobs. I had to preserve some sense of femininity, plus decrease the number of times that I would have to cope with anesthesia brain- which is just like chemo brain.

Whether you are a pre-vivor or survivor of cancer, once you move out of the phase of doing everything you can to save your life, you tumble into the phase of having to deal with the long term effects of the decisions you had to make. This phase is further complicated by recognizing that yet again you are in a place of privilege, because not everyone makes it that far. And if you also have a sexual trauma history, that adds another layer into the mix.

Our sexuality has the potential to be the silver lining of our lives- bringing joy, intimacy, excitement, and pleasure. It can be something that keeps us going in hard times, something that stokes our fires of hope and resiliency.

Yet, so often our sexual functioning and wellness is not even broached by our treatment teams. Likely this is a combo of the taboo nature of sex and sexuality, in addition to lack of time, proper training, and understanding of resources. When our treatment team fails to check in with us, it can have a silencing effect, impacting our capacity to self advocate for information, support and intervention.

While we may never fully return to our sexual prowess because of the hormonal changes or treatment side effects, we can likely find ways of greatly improving our sexual lives. Our definition of sexual activity may need to shift and change.

The other important component of healing is our identity as a sexual being. We may feel less feminine or masculine, our fantasy world might cause us to face over and over again how our bodies have been altered. Most grapple with the fear that their partner will not find them attractive anymore, and if you are single or in a toxic relationship this fear may be amplified.

At the heart of this turmoil related to our sexual identity, is the grieving we need to do related to what we have been through and the profound vulnerabilty that we face as we test the strengths of our partners ability to accept us (current and/or future). It is one of the biggest trust falls that we face.

If you find yourself in need of addressing your sexuality and sexual well being, here is a list of professionals who will hopefully able to help you. It begins with a conversation with your providers, and hopefully ends with finding guidance that helps you reclaim your sexuality:

  • Physical therapists- pelvic floor rehab
  • OBGYN- learning how to maintain healthy tissue
  • Urologists- our male OBGYN counterpart
  • Therapists and counselors who specialize in cancer and sex therapy
  • Relaxation experts, such as meditation teachers  and yoga instructors (who can also help with flexibility, naturally)

And so forth… the point being with a supportive recovery team, we can improve our lives.  Given the fact that we are tribal in nature, making connection with other cancer survivors and taking risks to openly discuss these issues, we decrease our sense of isolation and fear that somehow we are the only ones.  Of course, once we start making those connections, they often help us find the resources we need.

 every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it

-Hermann Hesse, Siddharta

– 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 Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Reaching towards

Reaching towards

Prior to experiencing cancer, my psychotherapy practice had specialized in eating disorder and trauma work, which I continue to do and love. This weeks blog is inspired by the difficult and life changing work that these clients take on as they heal, and the parallels I see with healing emotionally from a life threatening illness.

Reaching towards… it is an act of bravery, reaching towards how you want to feel and be, through the walls and barriers that have been constructed in order to keep that you safe.  The protection that may have once been necessary in order to survive, but now has become so life limiting that it threatens the very life the walls were built to protect.

Reaching towards… it is an act of faith, because you are reaching towards something that will hopefully serve you well, while recognizing that their is great uncertainty in its outcome.

Reaching towards… it is an act of breaking the stagnancy, of recognizing you have done what you can emotionally and physically to take the next step, and now the one thing left to do is to take the next step.

Reaching towards… takes us out of the zone in which we feel comfortable (even if it is not comforting), and into the zone in which we grow.

When you have cancer, there can be a sense of urgency to make important changes within one’s life and self, especially if you have been given the gift of a clean bill of health.  This urgency can become paralyzing at times, especially when we are feeling vulnerable to what we have been through.

If this is the case for you at this time, what might you imagine that first step to be?  How might you begin to reach forward in your life, while safeguarding some time and energy for processing what you have been through?

It is times like this, when I look for inspiration in the poem “The Journey”, written by Mary Oliver.  Sometimes the voices she references are those of others who perhaps hold us back; however, sometimes the voices she references come from the fear we hold inside about the unknown.  Whichever may be true for you, can you take the spirit of leaving it all behind, in order to reclaim your own unique voice?

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determine to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.

– 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 Self, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on Storytelling, a powerful tool for healing

Storytelling, a powerful tool for healing

This week I had the opportunity to do an in-service for the Dempsey Center staff about Expressive Arts Therapy. It gave me the opportunity to share again the healing power of art through the example of the breast casts that I used to process my cancer experience, which was powerful.

However, it was what happened after the presentation, when we moved into the experiential exercise that really spoke volumes. I asked everyone to get in touch with either something personal or an experience related to their work of being in service to cancer patients and their loved ones.  I asked them  to go inside and figure out how they felt about what they chose, the impact it has had on their body, mind, spirit, and self. When they were in touch with what they wanted to explore, I asked them to represent it through color, shape and form.

What came forth was a reminder of how powerful it is to take the risk and share your story. The exercise of putting it out onto paper made the stories more tangible to tell, and when the story and images were shared, it added depth and richness to the experience. In that moment of witnessing, we became more intimately connected to one another, seeing our different roles from a new lens.  For a moment, we embodied the experience of another, which in turn allowed us to connect more deeply to our own.

This form of art making, the visual journalling process, is a practice of being in silence with ourselves, in an active, curious way.  Silence can be an intimidating prospect for many, especially in the world we live in.  Yet silence allows us to create an attunement to our inner world and an attunement to the experience of others, strengthening our capacity for compassion.  Since art making is a form of moving meditation, it can build a bridge to feeling greater ease with silence.

It takes courage and trust to share something personal. It takes time to build confidence and trust with the ability to share, so be gentle with yourself if you are not ready to share actively with others.  The rewards we reap from sharing and witnessing help stoke the fire of resiliency and decrease our sense of isolation.  As one of my favorite quotes reminds me:

If you ask me what I came in this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud ~ Emile Zola

So tell me, what is the story you wish to share?

– 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 Self, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on Unexpected opportunities

Unexpected opportunities

In a couple of weeks, I will be packing up my boobs and mailing them off to Illinois.  That is, the casts of my breasts, that I have used as the canvas to process my experience of having cancer.  They will be a part of an art show, curated by the artist Caren Helene Rudman, at the Evanston Art Center titled “Undefinable: Women’s Health in America”.  I am so thrilled and honored to be included with this group of artists, who are exploring a wide range of health issues and their impact on each individual artist.

I’ve never been in an art show before, and thinking of myself as an artist can send me cringing.  Yet, when I look at what I produced thus far, I do feel deeply that each cast really reflects my experience, and that lends me confidence to send a piece of myself off to be witnessed by others, and hopefully be in service of whatever healing they are seeking.  Since this is an opportunity that found me, I am going to trust that I am worthy of it.

Having a life threatening illness is not something that any of us wishes for; however, the unexpected opportunities that arise because of it often bring richness into our lives.  In particular, the retreats and conferences that exist for the survivors.  I recently presented the workshop, Building Resiliency, at a breast cancer retreat weekend that has been operating for 30 years.  Listening to the women, it was clear that while none of them ever wanted to have cancer, the relationships they built with other survivors and life transformations that happened as a result were priceless.

Being a part of that club gives us the opportunity to confront the 4 universal fears that I have referenced before- fear of being along, of dying, of losing freedom, of losing our sense of purpose.  Facing them head on is an opportunity to grow, to evaluate the direction of our lives, and to consider making some changes that allow us to question what might be expected of us and take chances by going the unanticipated path.

Recognizing the opportunities doesn’t mean squelching the much needed grieving process that any significant loss of innocence entails, it is the opposite.  In order to fully live each breath that we are given in this life, it is important to create space for the full story to co-exist side-by-side.

– 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 Self, Survivorship 0 comments on For when you’ve lost your way in the sea of normalcy

For when you’ve lost your way in the sea of normalcy

Have you ever felt adrift in a sea of normalcy? In which everywhere you look it appears as if everyone is carrying on as usual, and you are not, even though on the surface it may appear as if nothing has changed…

It’s soccer season here in the Northeast, the crispness of fall air is starting to appear, and I am on the verge of my 3rd cancerversary.  I was diagnosed just days after my youngest started kindergarten, and just a week or so into their fall soccer season.

Every weekend, just a few blocks from our house, the fields would morph into a sea of kids all dressed in their uniforms and parents, eager to watch their kids and connect with their adult friends.  The year I was diagnosed, it was such an odd place to be in, I was immersed in a sea of normalcy, while my life was anything but normal.  I might as well have been lost on an island, because as hard as I tried, I really could not connect with what was going on.

We were coming to terms with what was happening to us.  We were shell shocked, so to be out and about in public felt like being in an alternate dimension, kind of like the Twilight Zone.  Everything looks familiar- but there is a certain quality of surrealism and unease that keeps you from fully relaxing.

Cancer, of course, is not the only thing that puts us in that boat.  Any significant life change can create that jarring sense of discord, even when the change is positive.

Besides coping with the actual curve ball that has been thrown your way, the other major challenge of these moments is sitting with the unknown and sitting with our mortality.  Even when the prognosis looks promising, on some level we are being reminded that no one lives forever.

It’s understandable if your gut instinct is to want to paddle like hell to any possible shore that you can find.  Yet often there is value with learning to accept the fact that you are adrift, and rather than rushing away from it, finding a way to center and ground yourself enough to simply be with it.

There was a story this summer in the paper of a family with local ties, who had recently returned after sailing around the world for 6 years with their young children.  The family had spent time living in various communities, but they also were often at sea for long periods of time.  In the interview, I was struck by how the youngest child described his response to the high seas, storms and ocean crossings:

“I was asleep the whole time,” he said with a shrug. “They’re just big waves.”

If you find yourself adrift, perhaps you can borrow some of the essence of what this 9 year old did instinctively, re-defining what could have been catastrophic into something more manageable, yet honoring what is rather than minimizing it.  It’s going to take some time before you find your way, and through acceptance we reduce the suffering that we feel in this moment of uncertainty. As Pema Chödrön wisely advises:

Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears

– 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 Body, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on What does furniture off-gassing and emotional healing have in common?

What does furniture off-gassing and emotional healing have in common?

Yes, I am trying to make you smile, but actually I also believe that this metaphor has a lot of significance. Here’s how it works in my mind…

Several years ago, we bought a Tempurpedic mattress. Once it was set up, we were so delighted that we would be sleeping on the most comfy mattress we had ever had. However, in order to fully reap the rewards of the mattress, we needed to accept and move through the off-gassing process. We couldn’t avoid it, we certainly weren’t going to return the mattress, because we knew that in the long run it was all going to be worth it.

The emotional healing process is quite similar. There are going to be times that we begin to reap the reward of taking the time and energy requires to heal ourselves; however, to do this we must walk through the process of off-gassing, i.e., releasing the aspects of your experience that caused suffering. When you have been diagnosed with cancer, your body, mind, spirit and sense of self has to store these events that we can’t fully process in order to cope with the crisis we face.

As we begin to heal, the triggers which set off the cascade of unfinished healing reminders, are kind of like the process of furniture off-gassing. It can strike us at unexpected times, prevent us from feeling fully comfortable, and the only way to heal it is to find ways to support yourself through the process.

So why are metaphors important in healing?  They are important because they help to transform something that is deeply personal, quite vulnerable, and subject to self criticism/judgment into something that is more compassionate, more universal, a part of the human experience- allowing ourselves to see the possibility that we are not alone but rather a part of a community of fellow travelers who are also working through similar challenges.

Metaphors can also help to normalize and validate our experience.  We’d love to have our mattresses off-gas completely the moment we obtain them, but in reality it is a process of unfolding that takes time.  When we become more realistic about what it means to heal, we can begin to accept the process rather than fight it.  We can remind ourselves that eventually the mattress no longer smells like chemicals; therefore, if we allow ourselves to feel through an experience, one day those triggers will not be as painful as they once were.

Like the mattress, our bodies hold the most raw, unrefined aspects of our life experiences.  Our physical self is the receptacle of the energy and sensations that we have trapped inside in order to survive.  These sensations can not be rationalized or avoided, so we need to create the skills and conditions that allow them to be felt, understood, and released.

Like that song I used to sing as a kid, “Going on a lion hunt”, advised:

Can’t go over it.
Can’t go under it.
Can’t go around it.
Gotta go through it.

So the real question is- what do you need in order to sustain yourself as you find your way through emotional healing?

– 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.