Healing Body, Intimacy and Parenting 0 comments on Censoring our scars = Censoring our pain

Censoring our scars = Censoring our pain

Yesterday I had an amazing conversation with Sondra, one of the masterminds behind Bullshit Breast Cancer. Sondra and Mia started Bullshit Breast Cancer to offer a safe place for breast cancer survivors, women and men alike, to share their stories and support one another, offering tips, suggestions and resources.

We talked about so many things, one of them being the emotional harm that comes with being censored by social media, by being locked out of your account, when images of chests post surgery are shared. Shut down, locked out, without any inquiry to clarify your reason for the post, no opportunity to explain, educate, or stick up for yourself.

An invisible, unseen hand that not only represses an expression of vulnerability, but likely leaves you with the indirect message that what you did was shameful.

Speaking for myself, when I see someone’s post about their mastectomy, their reconstruction or their decision to go flat (ie no reconstruction), I see someone who is willing to be brave, who is trying to make sense of what has happened to them, who is trying to express that breast cancer is not an awesome opportunity to get a “boob job” for free. I see someone who is seeking to connect with others, to share personally what they have been through, to show a different angle on beauty and strength. I see someone just like me, and it gives me comfort, hope, inspiration, and a sense that I am altered, yet I am worthy of love and affection.

I understand that if you are not a part of the breast cancer community, you might not understand the power of these images. However, I think we need to look very carefully at taking responsibility for our discomfort, rather than having a knee jerk reaction to censor what we don’t understand.

Censoring does not just apply to social media or large organizations- it happens in our most intimate relationships. The ways in which we hide ourselves because we see someone’s discomfort, fear or rejection of who we are or what we have been through. Or we worry that we will be rejected, so we preemptively do it to ourselves, for protection and preservation of the relationship.

Many cancer survivors have felt this, of someone turning away, disconnecting, or censoring who they are (or what they are willing listen to). Often this is driven by that person’s own fears, own uncertainty, own incapacitation that they don’t know what to do. However, if a relationship is truly going to stand the test of time- the test of adversity- the test of cancer, censorship can’t go on. It will eat away and destroy the fabric of the relationship.

Rather than getting caught up in our own personal whirlpool of uncertainty, of complication… what if you did one brave act- the act of starting the conversation. You don’t need to know all of the answers, you don’t need to solve the problem. What helps is the willingness to notice that something has changed and be willing to listen.

Overcoming censorship in our intimate relationships, the sort that keeps us hiding who we are and how we feel, is vital if we want to have deep intimacy with our loved ones. Just as spreading education, awareness and advocacy will hopefully impact the larger scale censorship that needlessly hurts a community that is trying 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, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages, the self assessment tool, and virtual workshops.  Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Healing Self, Healing Spirit, 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.

Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on For our co-survivors, take 2

For our co-survivors, take 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how our children are our co-survivors when we are diagnosed with cancer. This circle clearly extends to our closest people, our partners, our extended family, our friends, and our community.

I was once a co-survivor as well, when at the age of 19 and then 25, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first and final time. I recall witnessing her fear of recurrence between the two episodes and listening to her share how she was healing her body through massage after her first round of treatment.

When I think about the time we had as co-survivors, I remember feeling very uncertain and concerned about the fears she was having. I wanted her to feel better, but I was not sure how to help besides listening. Perhaps I tried to convince her to not worry so much, as we often do when someone is frightened. I’m not sure, but I hope that she felt supported.

As I observe how my husband and closest family and friends have been impacted, one common denominator seems to be that as I return to health, they begin to share little snippets of what it was like to witness the impact of cancer and it’s treatment.

It is natural to want to protect someone from full awareness of the big picture, especially when they are in the middle of the storm.  However, at some point, if we wish to maintain and deepen our intimacy, we need to find ways to begin to unpack what the experience was like for everyone involved.  When we begin that process, we are likely to come up against the common communication challenges.  To list a few:

  • Avoiding tough topics- time may heal wounds, but if we use this as a strategy, we run the risk of creating bigger wounds
  • Becoming defensive, quickly moving into the fight mode, often a sign that we are feeling triggered and vulnerable
  • Becoming overwhelmed- getting flooded with emotions and feeling unable to re-ground yourself
  • Shutting down- feeling overstimulated by the intensity of situation and retreating

Some of us can stay cool as a cucumber in the face of adversity. However; since cancer asks us to confront the four universal fears (of dying, of being along, of losing freedom, of meaninglessness) in addition to the fact that most of us have little “training” for doing so, let’s assume that initially it is going to be a little rough on ourselves and our loved ones as we find our way through processing what has happened.

Here are some thoughts of how to set up yourself for success when preparing to communicate about something tender.

  • Be thoughtful about creating connection- it is so easy to get disconnected in our busy lives, finding simple ways to connect briefly can help maintain our ability to stay together in the storms of life
  • Create a secure and safe bond, through communicating interest, acceptance and love
  • Check in with the other person, to see if they are emotionally available to connect, and if it is not a good time then make a plan for the near future
  • And when you do start to process, take your time.  When we take small steps, we can more easily observe how we are doing with vulnerability.  If the communication challenges start showing up, it is probably a sign that it is time to take a break.

Hopefully, with a little time and intention, the challenges of co-survivorship will ultimately bring more depth and joy into your most intimate relationships.  When we nurture our relationships through the dark night of the soul, we can uncover hidden gems and foster a mutual deep appreciation and connection with those who have shown up to be by our 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.

 

Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on For our co-survivors

For our co-survivors

I heard this term recently, in reference to our loved ones, who are by our side (in a helpful way- or not) as we go through the process of being diagnosed and treated for cancer.  It resonated with me, in part because of the impact my mom’s cancer had on me personally, but also for the impact I observed on my family, friends, and extended community.

For example, recently my children had the opportunity to meet my oncologist in person, when we were at our local Tri for a Cure event.  My oncologist is a warm and genuine person, and I was so excited to have the opportunity to introduce her to my children.  To have two very important sides of my life to meet one another.  Initially, the boys were shy and reserved, which was not a surprise per se, but when I asked them about what they thought of meeting her, I was surprised by what I heard.

It was scary…

On the surface, the interaction was pretty normal.  They were shy and then she made a joke and they relaxed a bit and talked briefly.  But when they told me how they were really feeling, it was a wake up call that the trauma of having their mom go through cancer was still very real.  In their minds, my oncologist was not the person who saved my life, she was the person who represented the fact that I could have died.

As a mom, I want to protect them from scary experiences, I want to protect them from still being scared that I will die.  We are fortunate that overall the boys are functioning pretty normally, but this is a reminder that it is important to continue to be tender with them and to keep in mind that as well as I know them, I do not always know what is driving their reactions to things.

The only thing I can do, is continue to work on being a safe person for them to share their thoughts and feelings, and to get them help when needed.  Some of the signs that indicate that you may want to bring your child to a therapist (or to engage in family therapy) are:

  • they are having difficult at home, in school and beyond
  • they are isolating from friends
  • they are regressing
  • they are incredibly sad and worried
  • their sleeping habits or appetite has changed
  • they have developed self destructive behaviors
  • they talk about death, or thinks about it repeatedly

If you have faced a life threatening illness, it is not uncommon to see the behaviors listed above, especially talking about death.  It’s normal, but if the behaviors persist, then it is a sign that your child is struggling to manage the stress that a significant illness brings.

It is important to communicate with all of the important adults in the child’s life (teachers, guidance counselors, close friends’ parents, their primary care doctor, and so forth) and then look for resources in the community- social workers connected to the oncology practice, non-profit cancer centers that offer child and family services, outpatient mental health providers, and so forth.

Our kids are not the only co-survivors in our life, but frequently they are the ones we focus upon first.  I will discuss the impact on our other co-survivors soon.  Until then…

– 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, Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on Stressful conversations

Stressful conversations

Being diagnosed with a life threatening illness certainly amps up the stress levels for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the most functional humans out there are going to experience a wide variety of physical and emotional responses to this major life event.  It can set up a cascade of reactions, and in the midst of it all are conversations that need to be had- with medical providers, insurance companies, immediate and extended family, friends, coworkers and colleagues, and the various community locales where we, and our family, live and work.  For myself, some of the earliest challenges were wondering what to say to my children in the midst of facing uncertain times.

When we are under a lot of pressure, it is easy to have miscommunication and misunderstanding.  We often forget that as humans our personal response to stress is likely to be very different from our immediate loved ones, and we can quickly make assumptions that aren’t accurate.  Not to mention that while we may have pledged our fidelity and loyalty to someone, very few of us have truly tested out the “in sickness and in health” promise, and since death anxiety is a core universal fear- it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response at a time where our resources to stay grounded are likely depleted.

It is not uncommon to see that those whom we thought might be our biggest allies seem to disappear; whereas, others whom you might not have thought would come forward do in a significant way.  This sets up an interesting dichotomy, on one hand there is a feeling of loss and on the other hand there is a swell of faith in the power of compassion.  At some point it will be important to be able to express feelings related to the abandonment, and some relationships might end; however, it is important to give it time and to try and re-direct thoughts of wanting to take this personally- as so often it is more about that person’s fear rather than about you personally.

Our stress can leak out into a variety of conversations- not just with our loved ones.  It can impact our friendships, colleagues or capacity to relate with the medical team.  It is important to think about finding a good fit with a medical team and support system- as trust is at the core of having a solid working relationship; however, the crisis of diagnosis and treatment often forces us to confront the parts of ourselves and our relationships that need work- the parts we often avoid until we can no longer do so.

Beth Eilers, LCSW, of Healthful Counseling and myself have designed a workshop to look at the different aspects of ourselves that influence how we manage stress (for example, personality type and attachment style) and offer tools to increase our ability to observe, understand and then share with our loved ones.  If you live locally, we are offering the workshop at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine, on May 4,2017.  Click here to register.

If you don’t live locally and are struggling with this topic, it may be time to reach out to your medical team to inquire about resources they may have available to you, or search for a psychotherapist who has experience working with significant medical issues.  The individual program offered through Creative Transformations offers tools to help to slow down your reactions and gain distance from them in order to re-engage the observing self.  Contact us if you would like to explore how.

– 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.

Healing Mind, Intimacy and Parenting 0 comments on Revising expectations- a tool for building resiliency

Revising expectations- a tool for building resiliency

Have you ever suffered from an attack of the “shoulds”? How did you feel afterwards- heavy? Depressed? Anxious? Tense? Pissed off? Sad? Alone?  Whatever it was, even if the “should” was momentarily motivating, I would imagine the longer term impact left you feeling worse rather than better.  Especially if your “shoulds” follow you around like your shadow, never leaving your side.

Somewhere along the line, many of us developed the notion that harsh self talk was going to keep us “on track”, but psychologically speaking it actually undermines our sense of confidence that we can trust ourselves to know what we need.  Compassionate self talk can get us to the same end point, with much less turmoil and a boost to our self esteem. When we practice speaking to ourselves from a place of compassion, we are validating our present circumstances and using tender or encouraging messages to move ourselves forward.

When the “shoulds” enter into the realm of our relationships, we know that we are in for trouble.  Our expectations of self and others can deeply interfere from having a more realistic and broader perspective of the situation at hand.  We can become defensive, hurt, or critical, undermining the capacity for intimacy and connection.  If we are honest with ourselves, often the “shoulds” are connected to past experiences or relationships, perhaps triggered by something in the hear and now that reminds us of the unfinished business.  To address those unmet needs from the past, we need to be clear about what our expectations were and how we can help ourselves in this moment to grieve and heal from the hurt.

Expectations are frequently the guest of honor in our suffering.  They can bind us to our suffering, and rather than growing spiritually it can harm our body, mind, spirit and self.  If we seek liberation, learning how to revise our expectations is the path we must wander down.  Examining our expectations may involve endings, an ending of a habit which may have served us in some particular way but no longer does, an ending of a relationship or experience.  However, when we chose to end something because we have revised our expectations, typically we are not left with unfinished business.  Especially if we end through a compassionate, yet clear, voice.

So today, think about an unrealistic expectation that you have held for yourself or someone else.  Where do you think it came from?  Taking time to journal through writing or art- ie, capturing your internal experience and making it external, may help you process it.  Now, think about how you might revise that expectation, even if it is just a tiny bit, and observe how you feel inside.  If you feel a little lighter, you are likely on the right path.

– 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.