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, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on Visual Journaling for Healing

Visual Journaling for Healing

As a therapist, I often hear from my clients about an intense moment that they had in between sessions, in which they wished that they had been with someone supportive. I think we all can relate to this dilemma, something triggers an strong reaction within our mind, body, spirit or self and we feel overwhelmed and alone.

For so many of us, this happens late at night, when our loved ones are asleep or perhaps we are all alone. Whatever the circumstances may be, the need is to help us ride the wave of the experience without falling into behaviors or thought patterns that do more damage than help.

Or perhaps you have just had one of those delicious “Ah-Ha!” moments, when something clicks and you stumble upon some meaningful insight into your experiences, and you want to capture it so that you can recall what it was, to lean into the juiciness of self discovery and healing, to create a deeper sense of letting go.

Then again, perhaps you are feeling a sense of confusion, unsure of what or how you are feeling yet knowing that there is some sort of turmoil or unease brewing inside. Your thoughts might not be able to do justice to understanding it. It is something less verbal.

This is where a visual journal can support your healing.

Metaphorically, I imagine a visual journal like one of those mason jars you might use to create a little habitat for a caterpillar to eventually morph into a butterfly. Inside the jar, you will continue to add bits of food, to nourish the caterpillar while it gently grows, preparing itself for the cocoon. In your journal, you are capturing moments, snapshots, of your experience as they wash over you, slowly building towards understanding, healing and transformation.

A caterpillar cannot morph into a butterfly overnight, it must work towards the goal, bit by bit. Each action it takes is imperative for its final transformation. Nor can we heal fully from the experience of facing cancer or another life threatening condition, without taking small steps to understand how it has impacted our body, mind, spirit, and self.

So if you are intrigued by this idea, give it a try. I recommend visual journalling, the process of transcribing our emotional, internal landscape onto paper through color, shape and form, because so often when we face a life threatening condition, words can only capture our experience up to a certain point. Through the practice of using art to symbolize our less verbal experiences, they become more tangible and easier to identify, allowing them to eventually be incorporated into our sense of self. Writing after we have spent time drawing, can help us to deepen the understanding. Over time, the pieces begin to come together.

If you are not sure where to begin, check out this blog post, Healing through Art and Writing, or consider contacting me for a free consultation. We can discuss your needs and I can share how I work with people virtually or in person.

Until next week…

– 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 Legacy’s impact on healing

Legacy’s impact on healing

This morning I found myself with some extra time, and it allowed me to spend some time at my art table working on the breast cast that represents the conclusion of treatment.  A few weeks ago, my creative self whispered an idea into my psyche and it really suited the metaphor of finishing the 9 months of active treatment.

I started to paint, and my consciousness started to drop into my body, into my memory of that moment.  As I was feeling my way through, I quickly understood that this was representational of my experience but new awareness of the under layer of that moment struck me.  I recognized something I never had consciously realized before, that part of my healing was related to my mom.  She had breast cancer twice, the first time she finished treatment, she was in remission.  The second time she finished treatment, she died two weeks later.

As I came to this understanding, my body tingled (a sign that I was on the right path), and my mind whispered- yes.  My spirit tapped into the unprocessed grief around these two endings, and my Self recognized an aspect of the experience that was deeply tied into my own experience of treatment ending.  A shared experience with my mom that we never had the chance to process.

I was in college during her first round of cancer, so while I was concerned and checked in frequently, I was not present for the day-to-day and I did not witness her ending treatment.  The one clear memory I have is of her sharing the reason why she went to weekly massage for one year post treatment- to help her body heal and release the poison.

The second ending I was present for, she had a terrible reaction to her final chemotherapy treatment, and in the discussion that followed with her doctor, we all came to the conclusion that it was time to stop.  I regret that I never had the chance to ask her about how she felt about ending (or if i did, I have no memory of it). I can make an educated guess, but I wish I had a memory of a direct conversation.

Once I identified the under-layer of this particular life moment, it was if a pop happened deep inside my body and psyche, the energy was released and I felt peaceful, calm and settled. Scientists have studied why animals in the wild do not show signs of PTSD, even though they confront life threatening circumstances frequently.  What they discovered was, if an animal survived an attack on its life, it would shake uncontrollably once it was safe again.  Releasing the energy and adrenaline after that event, rather than trying to control or stuff its experience.

As humans, we unfortunately often shut down that reaction, in a variety of ways.  And thus it gets trapped in our psyche, and always in our body which holds the rawest renditions of our life experiences.

I share this experience, because it demonstrates how important it is to give ourselves the opportunity to process and explore our significant life experiences.  If I had not sat down to do some art therapy around the experience of ending treatment, I would have not recognized this unmet need.  To me, this speaks volumes as I have actually spent a lot of time thinking about this moment and it’s impact on the body, mind, spirit, and self.  It was one of the critical moments in my life that propelled me into building what has become Creative Transformations.

We all carry legacy in our lives, it shows up in a variety of shapes and forms.  Even if your cancer story was not a part of the family legacy, it is important to listen to the cues our body, mind, spirit, or self send about when we are re-experiencing a personal moment tied into the legacy of our ancestors.  They are interwoven into the tapestry of our lives, and when we take time to unpack them- we learn so much about ourselves and our extended family.  As a therapist, I have witnessed time and time again how healing this awareness is to our sense of self.

– 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 Self, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Unpacking cancer’s baggage

Unpacking cancer’s baggage

Many moons ago a client told me about an article that she had read about the process of how and why therapy works.  She said the author described it as the process of unpacking our old baggage that we have been lugging around, exploring what is inside, and then repacking it in the manner and style we wish to.  This made sense to me, especially as often our baggage has items in it that we didn’t place in by choice.

Taking the time to unpack, observe and then re-pack allows us to let go of that which we no longer need and to be more conscious of what we are carrying around.  Sometimes we need to repeat this process over and over again, especially with those bags that hold our more tender, vulnerable, and intense experiences.  Through this process, we begin to make meaning from what we have been through and it’s importance in how it shapes who we are.

This week, I passed the two year marker of completing active treatment for breast cancer.  This day also happened to coincide with my kid’s final day of kindergarten and 2nd grade, along with other milestones for myself and my immediate family. BOOM it was done.  Another suitcase jammed full of experiences that we would need to unpack again when the time was right.

This anniversary marker has been floating in and out of my consciousness for the past week, but that afternoon I ended up with some free time, and thus it became first time I have given myself the opportunity to take a peak.  I was feeling out of sorts, wanting to be able to sift through efficiently and yet that was not in the cards for me.  Recognizing it wasn’t going to be a resolvable moment, I decided to just find a way to be with it rather that wrestle with the angst of not getting what I thought I wanted.

So here is what I did:

  • I found a way to accept where I was at
  • I found a quiet place to sit, and did a brief body scan- systematically going head-to-toe to observe what was happening inside myself
  • I quickly found this energy sitting in my chest, it was stingy, sore, uncomfortable.  I allowed myself to feel it
  • As I felt it, I increased my awareness of how my initial perception was changing, so I grabbed my art journal and supplies to put it on paper
  • I listened to my instinct about how to represent it, then finished with a few words to capture what was happening
  • I recognized that I was not going to be able to come away with a neatly re-packed suitcase.  That was not what my body and mind needed today, rather the need was to sit with the uncomfortable, the incomplete, the unknown.
  • I accepted that, closed my book, picked up my supplies, and walked away.

It’s impossible, said pride

It’s risky, said experience

It’s pointless, said reason

Give it a try, whispered the heart

-Unknown

I realize that it takes a lot of courage to face our baggage.  It can be overwhelming.  It does not have to be done alone.  The power of art and meditation can help us build a safe space in which to begin.  Allow your heart to guide you, and reach for support when you need it.

– 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 via Creativity 0 comments on Healing through art and writing

Healing through art and writing

When I am sitting down with myself or someone else to help them heal through art, we often follow this flow:

  • find the jump off point, i.e. what part of our experience is asking to be explored
  • tuning into that experience by tuning into our body
  • translating that energy, sensation, thought or feeling onto paper through color, shape, or form
  • taking a step back to talk through what has been shared, discovering what is needed to support this aspect of our experience
  • wrapping up the session by titling the piece and writing a few words to recall what has happened

I often close the session with the recommendation that time be set aside for writing, whether it is to reflect upon what happened or to capture the internal response.  In grad school, we called this process an intermodal transfer, because we were moving from one form of expression to another.

This is a critical step, as it is similar to debriefing and analyzing our dreams.  When we are engaging in a meditative art practice, we are tapping into less conscious areas of awareness, similar to how dreams tap into our subconscious.  When we take the time to write and reflect, we pull that material into our conscious mind, allowing it to become more accessible for processing.  This is imperative when you consider what you had to push aside in order to survive treatment.

The writing can take any form: bullet points, short notes, paragraphs, etc.  One form of writing that often organically surfaces from art making is poetry.  Especially when you are in the process of describing what you see in your art work.  When I was contemplating the breast casts I did for each stage of treatment, it was as if the casts were speaking to me- the words tumbled out onto the page.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, unpacks the process of tapping into our creative genius, which through research she discovered that the Greeks and Romans did not believe creativity came from humans.  Rather, they thought that creativity was a divine spirit that came to human beings and assisted them in their creative expression. She writes:

“Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention.”

Having practiced and witnessed others engaging in art therapy, I would thoroughly agree with this notion.  When we relax into expressing the messages coming from within ourselves and through ourselves, we tap into a layer of spontaneity and deep wisdom, which often offers great relief and release from our pain.  It feels magical.

– 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, Survivorship 0 comments on A Cancer Story told through Art

A Cancer Story told through Art

Last October I gave a talk called “A breast cancer story told through art”, in which I discussed the how and why art can be used to heal emotionally following cancer.  I interwove the art work and writing that I had done from my cancer treatment experience to illustrate the theory in action, hoping that it would inspire others to find their own unique creative voice for healing.

I have been re-listening to the talk in preparation for a presentation I am doing.  Giving the talk was one of the highlights of my life, to be able to tell the story and share how art has helped me to heal, was such an honor.  You will find below a photograph of my breast casts, that show the treatment experience, and a link to the audio recording.  Please enjoy!

Above- the casts, Below- the link to the audio recording

The wound is the place where the light enters you

Rumi

– 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, Survivorship 0 comments on Being diagnosed, or in other words, revisiting the beginning of the tale

Being diagnosed, or in other words, revisiting the beginning of the tale

Being diagnosed with cancer, or another life threatening condition, is often seen as the beginning of something.  An undoubtedly unanticipated and harrowing journey.  A day, or period of time, that will not be erased easily from memory.  An anniversary that requests to be reprocessed each year, to allow us to let go of what needs to be released and offers the opportunity for reflection- just like a birthday often does.

When I am introducing the concept of art therapy to individuals and groups, I often use the memory of being diagnosed as a jumping off point.  It is something that is universal to those who have faced a life threatening condition, independent of where they currently stand within their personal situation.  I also chose this point because it is multidimensional and full of material to work with- because this moment- or series of moments- are laden with thoughts, feelings and sensations.  If you are curious, click on this link, which will take you to a Facebook live video I did with CancerGrad, in which we talk about art therapy and then finish with a guided art/meditation experience of processing our diagnosis.

Processing our experience of being diagnosed is important, because when we wish to reclaim our sense of self, we need to let those critical moments speak.  They often hold suppressed material, because in that moment we are dealing with very strong thoughts, feelings and emotions, and it is not possible to unpack them all at once.  So each year when we cycle towards that moment, we consciously or not begin to bring up that which we still need to go through.  It’s like an onion, there are layers and layers to explore as we heal.  I have seen it stimulate strong self critical feelings, because it can be unsettling to be brought back to what sometimes feels like the beginning- as if no time has passed at all.

Another factor that can add complexity, is managing the narrative that others may wish to lay over our personal experience.  It can be very challenging for our family and friends to see us struggle, or they themselves may be struggling with their own suppressed experience of witnessing our process of being diagnosed.  One of the fundamental components of a PTSD diagnosis is experiencing or witnessing a life threatening experience and then re-experiencing it through intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories.  While it is often stronger for the person who was diagnosed, it is not unusual for loved ones to be struggling themselves and in fact is often made worse by feelings of helplessness- for the loved ones can’t take on the direct treatment experience.

If you are on the verge of that cancerversary, set aside some time for yourself to allow for contemplation.  Cancer does not have to be a dominant part of your identity, but it is an important chapter in the story of your life.  A chapter that needs to be revisited and rewritten, so that over time it can become fully integrated into the story of your life.

– 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 via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on Listen to the replay! Stephanie’s interview about emotionally healing from cancer

Listen to the replay! Stephanie’s interview about emotionally healing from cancer

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon and Becky, the founders of Breast Friends of Oregon. Each Friday they host a radio show on Voices of America.

This program was about the emotional impact of cancer and healing from it. Listen to our stories and the theory behind why art therapy can help anyone who has experienced cancer- including loved ones.

Here’s the link!

Please enjoy and share with those who could benefit!

– 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 Self, Healing via Creativity, Survivorship 0 comments on The identity dance

The identity dance

I was reflecting recently about the differing opinions/perspectives on life after cancer (or any life threatening condition) and the role it plays in re-configuring our sense of self, our identity.  Someone reflected about how some people seem to want to disown/disavow their experience of having cancer whereas others are perceived to be fully immersed in their identity as a cancer survivor. I am a believer in finding the balance, which I will discuss below, but here is some food for thought to start us off: while I can appreciate that some people may come across as fully immersed in the cancer survivor identity, would you question it if they were experiencing was adjusting to parenthood? starting college? or a new job?

It’s important to keep in mind that our major life experiences absolutely shape our sense of self, especially when we are in the process of integrating that experience into our personal schema.  So there is no shame in having the need to explore, discuss, and possibly display this aspect of ourselves.  But just like anything in life, it is important to recognize that remaining stuck or overly focused on one part of our life experience is not fully being present to the moment or one’s complete identity.  And it is at the core of the work I do, to help people find the tools they need to process what they have experienced, so that it does integrate itself- rather than fracture us.

The tricky part is, it’s not like we can sit down and systematically go through the process of grieving from the start until the end.  We can’t possibly plot out all of the exact steps- small or large- that we must take in order to “fix” our identity dilemma.  And when you are in a lot of physical and emotional pain to begin with, it is very challenging to trust that you will have enough stamina and patience to go through it.

Therefore, rather than focusing the “to do” list of grieving, we need to cultivate a practice of recognizing when we are physically and emotionally exhibiting signs that we need to set aside some time for reflection to experience and release what kernel or nugget of our grief is ready to be explored.  In the beginning, it is most useful to find consistent and predictable check in moments with yourself, because it will create increased trust with yourself that you are giving yourself the gift of time and attention- rather than creating tension because you are attempting to avoid or repress a need.

It is understandable that many of us are unsure of how to support ourselves through grieving, which is why we might vacillate between ruminating, avoiding or repressing it.  This is why I developed the protocol for using a visual journal, because it can serve as a way to contain and capture an experience as we are developing our ability to sit with and observe our pain.  When we capture it through color, shape, or form, we are releasing it from our physical self which creates an unburdening.  When we feel ready to practice adding reflection into what we capture, we begin to deepen our understanding of what we have been through, which eventually leads to it’s integration into our identity.

– 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.