Healing Mind, Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on Living life between the scans

Living life between the scans

Scans… they are the bane of cancer survivors and their co-survivors.  It’s as if you can’t escape them- for they happen at the beginning of treatment, frequently during treatment, and exists as a possibility throughout the duration of one’s existence as long as you are still being monitored for cancer.  They are ordered to identify where the cancer is in the body, to examine the effectiveness of intervention, to determine whether or not it has spread, or to understand the meaning behind certain physical symptoms that indicate something is potentially wrong.

To say the least, there really is no such thing as a neutral scan.

At my last check in with my favorite NP at my oncologists office, she noticed that my onc had put it in the plan to have another PET in February.  Typically PETs are ordered for the reasons above; however, when I was originally diagnosed they did find a spot on my hip that they were never able to fully clear of suspicion initially.  The follow up scans showed that did not change, so the NP was surprised to find the order in there.  She did not remove it, but surmised that likely it was there just as a reminder to discuss whether or not it is necessary.

On one hand, I know that my onc generally follows the rule of thumb that you only scan if there are physical symptoms present.  On the other hand, this conversation caused a cascade of thoughts in my brain, such as…

  • planting a seed of doubt- am I truly feeling good?  Have I been downplaying any physical symptoms and living in denial? Can I trust my own wisdom? Am I foolish to say that there is no need to do it?  Will that decision hurt my family?
  • a stark reminder of how critical the 3 year marker is for my type of cancer- triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).  If you make it to the 3rd year with no evidence of disease, it greatly increases your chance of long term survival.  It’s not a guarantee of course, but it does add a dose of pressure to the 3rd year marker.
  • hypervigilance- I am supposed to be mindful of changes in my body, so I can be an accurate reporter for my onc?  It’s a fine balance between to paying too much attention and too little, yet there is no device on the market that can “show” you if you are “doing it right” or not.

That being said, even though cancer takes away a lot of things from us, either temporarily or permanently, we deserve to live as fully as we can “between the scans”.  It is a fundamental human right we should all cherish.

Knowing it is a right, and getting yourself there, is the challenge.  Keep in mind, this is a judgement free zone- I want to encourage you to reduce the suffering that comes along with self criticism and reap the reward of compassion by accepting yourself for exactly who you are, at all times.

We are going to experience a wide arrange of emotions as we learn to love ourselves exactly as we are.  If we reject our thoughts and feelings, we also dull our ability to receive important messages of insight and intuition from deep within.  This can lead to more anxiety, depression, or PTSD, rather than less, as well as decrease our warning system that helps us to know when we need to ask for help.

The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a lighthouse.  A beacon of protection that warns us of danger and us to safety. Even if the light is somehow disruptive, would we choose to turn it down simply to free ourselves from the annoyance? Keeping our fingers crossed that no one crashes into the rocks the lighthouse was created to protect us from? Probably not.

Yet we do need to cultivate a way of distinguishing between a true distress signal and one that is processing and letting out that which we repressed to survive.

If you need a few tips on how to begin this process of acceptance, validation, compassion and staying present, check out these posts below:

If you live in Maine and wish to learn more about living life as well as you can between the scans, I will be leading a workshop, “Living Fully Between the Scans: Finding Healing, Connection and Hope for Cancer Survivors and the Their Loved Ones” at the March 2018 retreat being offered by Caring Connections.  It is FREE and open to all cancer survivors and their loved ones.  Registration links will be coming soon!

– 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 To thy own self, be true

To thy own self, be true

Being a cancer survivor frequently creates a deep awareness of how well we actually know ourselves.  It may begin with an intuitive sense that something is really wrong, and then assist us in continuing to push for diagnostics to understand what is happening. It may begin as an instinctual understanding of who we need on our team, or how we are going to respond to an intervention.

When I was diagnosed, I finally understood why I had been feeling so off for about 6 months.  At the time I sort of chalked it up to waning interest in my fitness activities, but even changing them did not truly lift the feeling.  The dream I had about having breast cancer is how I found the lump, but in retrospect my body had been talking to me for quite some time.

In my conversations with other cancer survivors, they share uncanny insights that they have had through the treatment process, which have often been right on.  Thus the phrase, to thy own self be true.

What gets tricky, of course, is that at some point most of us confront the challenge of distinguishing between the information that comes from our inner wisdom and the fears that cause disruption to our sense of security and self-confidence.  The turning point often coincides with slowing down enough to process what is or has happened to us, which can feel like a tidal wave.

Our innate wisdom, our gut sense, our deep knowing, truly has an unique energetic quality to it.  It is often subtle as we practice trusting it, getting stronger and stronger the more we listen to its wisdom.  For those of us who were actively encouraged to ignore our instinctual insight as a child or as an adult in a toxic relationship, reclaiming this power does take time.  It takes a leap of faith, yet what awaits us on the other side is so valuable.

This is where the therapeutic value of processing what we have been through can really assist us.  Through the unpacking and repacking of the most important moments of our lives, we can gain validation, new perspective, emotional release, and the opportunity to create a little more distance from what we have been through.  When we have distance from something, we are more able to manage our response to and understanding of what it is.

Since life threatening experiences impact us on so many levels, we often run into barriers of communicating exactly what we have been through.  Words do have limits to how accurately we can express ourselves, which is why the use of art is so powerful.  As we learn to translate the non-verbal parts of our internal experience through color, shape, and form, we frequently find both a release of what it represents and the words that validate our experience.

This process of validation brings a deeper connection to our self, our innate wisdom, and the confidence that we have lost because we have been diagnosed with cancer. Whether you choose to engage yourself through meditation, art or some other form of non-verbal experiencing is less important, than the gift of time to allow yourself to try.

As Shel Silverstein reminds us in his poem, “The Voice”:

There is a voice inside of you that whispers all day long, “I feel this is right for me, I know that this is wrong”

No teacher, preacher, parent, friend or wise man can decide what is right for you– just listen to

The voice that speaks inside

In solidarity,

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, 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 0 comments on Laughter as medicine

Laughter as medicine

Last year, when I was working at the Dempsey Center, a local cancer wellness service center, there was a workshop called “laughter yoga”.  I didn’t have the opportunity to attend, but it was such a change in the atmosphere.  Typically, the atmosphere at the Dempsey Center is calming and heart-felt, but on that day as I walked with clients to and from session, we could here the participants working themselves into fits of laughter.  It added a special spark to the atmosphere that day, and a reminder that even though we may be faced with cancer, we still deserve the benefits of laughter.

When we are facing hard times, it can be challenging to find humor.  Yet if we do find it, it helps to bring a little more levity to our situation, it helps to break some of the tension we feel.  It helps us tolerate the unknown because for a moment we have lost ourselves in a good chuckle. I recall in the more stressful moments of the treatment process, if I was able to find something to joke or laugh about, it helped me cope better.

Here are some of the benefits of laughter: it lowers stress hormones, increases immunity, offers pain relief, plus it helps your organs get more oxygen, which causes the brain to release more endorphins. Of course we can’t forget how it improves mood and creates a sense of community if you are laughing with others.  Even the Mayo Clinic concurs with these health benefits. As a cancer survivor, anything that can improve my immunity catches my attention.

Since I did not have the opportunity to attend the laughter yoga workshop, I decided to search YouTube to see what might be available.  The search yielded these great images that even just scanning them made me smile.  My favorite video that I came across was done by Bianca Spears.  I liked it because she had a nice blend of explanation of the technique in combination with actually experiencing it .  Bianca states that one of the reasons why it ends up being a workout is because it uses yogic breathing to make the laughing sounds, and because the body cannot differentiate between real and simulated laughter, the health effects are the same. If you would like to check it out, click here to get the link.

There is a lovely Jewish proverb I stumbled upon several months ago, that captures this sentiment so deftly.

As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul

No matter where you are at this point in your life, I hope that you find those moments of laughter, to bring a little sparkle back into your life.  It might just depend on it.

– 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 Reconnecting with ourselves following surgery

Reconnecting with ourselves following surgery

The first time I had surgery, I was in the 3rd grade.  The doctors were concerned with the look of my favorite mole, the perfectly round, cute one that sat atop of my 2nd-to-last toe.  They wanted to remove it to make sure that it was not a melanoma.  I was so devastated because not only was it my favorite mole, but the recovery process was going to prevent me from attending an important social soiree- a birthday party at a pool.

What I was not prepared for, was the trauma that would come with this procedure, in fact I don’t even recall the doctor warning me that it could hurt. To take the mole, they had to anesthetize my foot by putting a needle in the soft arch of the foot.  I was completely awake for the procedure, so I saw it happen, and in my memory I have the image from the movie Psycho-but replacing the stabbing knife with a needle.  My mom was there, thank god, but it was one of the scariest and most painful things I have been through.

To make matters worse, the doctors didn’t seem to prep my parents well for what to expect following the surgery, because they decided to go out for a date night that evening.  When I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain, the babysitter allowed me to watch my first horror movie- which continued the horror of the entire experience.  While it was awful at the time and for many years afterwards, I do actually laugh when I tell this story because it certainly wins an award for “what not to do”.

Several years afterward, when my husband and I were dating, he used to joke with me whether or not he would ever get to see my feet- because I kept them well protected by socks.  I would joke back, saying “NO”.

Twenty years after it happened, I began to break through the leftovers from this experience, somewhat unexpectedly during an expressive therapy movement class for my master’s program.  I had carried around the pain of that experience in an awkwardly disconnected and overstimulated way, but I had never thought to try and reconnect intentionally with this very tender part of my body and my experience.  In fact, as I write this, 35 years later, I still have a squeamish sensation in my foot.  However, it no longer is disabling as it once was, and my husband has not only seen my feet, but he is now allowed to touch them lightly!

I had this same need, to reconnect, after the bilateral mastectomy.  I didn’t realize how disconnected I was until I was going through physical therapy and the therapist was gently working with the scar tissue.  As she worked with the tissue, I realized how neglected this part of my body had been feeling, in addition to being a constant reminder that I had faced cancer.  This was before I had even conceived of how to heal from cancer, so it stayed with me as something I would need to explore as I did not want to repeat the surgery after-effects that I had experienced as a child.

In my work with other cancer survivors, we have discovered some common themes for healing the body post surgery.  Here are some of the most common ones, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below:

  • avoiding the area of the body where the cancer grew, because of the fear of recurrence
  • grieving the loss of the part of the body that was removed to address or prevent cancer
  • separation anxiety from the missing tissue
  • being startled by or continuously reminded that you had cancer
  • physical ramifications, such as phantom pain, loss of mobility, loss of sensation, etc.
  • negative thoughts about body image, struggling to accept the changes and/or re-visiting old thoughts and feelings about the body

Developing an ability to sit with and witness what the body has been through, what we have been through, is an important step towards healing.  This is a process that unfolds over time, thus requiring an ability to move in and out of unpacking the experience.  Understandably, we may worry that if we allow ourselves to feel through something, we might get stuck or lost in the process.  To learn more about why art is an effective tool for engaging with our experience, follow this link.

What I love about the quote: “My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive” by Cheryl Rainfield, is how she is holding a broader perspective of her experience- rather than feeling compelled to focus on one aspect or the other.  The more successful we can be at looking and accepting our experience for what it is, the more possible it is for us to heal.

– 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, Healing Spirit 0 comments on For the new year

For the new year

This week I am taking a little break from writing, but I wanted to close out my final #TherapyThursday post with some classic, inspirational words by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.  And when we bring what lies within us out into the world, miracles happen.

When you have or have had cancer, what lies within you is the foundation for resiliency.  Honoring our needs, setting realistic expectations of ourselves, taking space from relationships that drain us while opening up to relationships that feed you, these are the components of a strong foundation.

Working through the trauma that comes with cancer allows us to tap into our deepest sense of self, the part of us that has evolved towards self actualization, a process that continually unfolds. When we allow that part of us out into the world as we work through the trauma, miracles do happen for that helps the collective conscience of us all.

I wish you all a Happy New Year, should you have a topic that you would like me to address in an upcoming blog, write in the comments below or send me an email: creativetransformationsllc@gmail.com.

– 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, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on The Cancer Family Tree

The Cancer Family Tree

In May, I had the chance to work on an art piece that explores both my immediate family cancer history and the sisterhood/brotherhood that is formed between all cancer warriors.  This interconnection is so powerful yet so bittersweet, because it asks us to not only face our own mortality, but the mortality of those we know and love.

One of the hardest aspects to face is a sense of survivor guilt.  In fact, independent of the severity of someone’s cancer, if you ask someone how they are doing they will almost always relay some way in which they have it easier than others who have cancer.  This humility is often at the core of empathy yet may also be a signal that survivor guilt is present.

While the presence of survivor guilt is a very natural response, it is important to be mindful of how much impact it is having on those who feel it.  If it is triggering a desire to isolate or withdraw, then it is imperative to seek out someone who can help you work through it.

When I made the original cast pictured below, I felt a release of something important, but at the time I could not express myself.  Earlier this week, I realized it was time to re-visit the cast to learn what it wished to tell me.

I leave you today with the poem that arose as I sat quietly with the cast.

The Cancer Family Tree

Our story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

The cancer code crawls through the family tree

Sparing some, taking others

Living with the possibility

You are next on its target list

 

Her story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

She had cancer once, and then it came back

Her valiant efforts were not enough

To stop it in its tracks

 

My story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

14 years after burying my mother

The doctor called to say “You have cancer”

A bittersweet moment of deep inter-generational connection

Walking in her shoes, this time from the perspective of daughter and mother

 

Our story is not unique

The pattern repeats itself over and over

The sisterhood and brotherhood of cancer warriors

Binds us tightly together

And while our story may be common

EACH ONE OF US IS UNIQUE

For the effect cancer has on our lives

Intimately impacts us in deeply personal ways

From my heart to yours, Namasté.

– 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.