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.

Intimacy and Parenting, Survivorship 0 comments on Recovering from cancer’s strain on intimacy

Recovering from cancer’s strain on intimacy

Being in a relationship with your significant other is bound to be filled with highs and lows.  Having a healthy relationship involves a lot of effort, time and patience as the allure of new relationship peters out and we begin to truly know and understand our own and our partner’s relationship quirks, strengths and challenges.  When you throw a massive wrench like cancer into the works, it inevitably exposes the work we need to do individually and as a couple to evolve.  Let’s take a look at why that might be happening, and reflect upon some ideas that might help you and your partner grow together through the process, rather than apart.

First and foremost, when the crisis of a cancer diagnosis happens, you are in a constant process of triaging the most important issue/concern/need of the moment.  This often creates a backlog of things that have not been attended to.  The person who has been diagnosed is the focus of support, which can lead to loved one’s needs being neglected, especially if the system is facing multiple stressors (health, financial, children, etc) at once.

A common scenario is that the person who is diagnosed becomes immersed in the health crisis and therefore less available, and the partner becomes immersed in managing everything else and therefore less available.  The image that comes to mind is of a camel, initially the camel is able to sustain the strain on it’s system because it has it’s reserve of water and energy stored for a long haul.  Yet, if the camel does not have regular infusions of water and food, it becomes weaker and weaker.  This metaphor can apply to a couple managing the crisis of cancer, over time the reserve of intimacy will be spent if it is not replenished.

To add to the challenge, we each have our own unique way of managing stress, and when you are under pressure it is much easier to misread and/or personalize incidents.  Communication struggles that were present before become amplified if we aren’t mindful.  We may feel desperation to process difficult things, like death anxiety, which may be intolerable to the other person.  Our community may not be able to see or appreciate the individual and family needs, which can deepen the sense of isolation.

With this in mind, developing a compassionate approach with one another can ease the tension and provide some breathing room in the moment.  Compassion is the art of bringing kindness into our relationship with our selves and our partners.  We often turn towards criticism of self and others as a mean of trying to change or control a situation, which only does harm.  A compassionate approach may include asking for a change, but the emphasis is on being able to communicate from the heart about what you observe about yourself, your partner, the situation and the needs.  When we attempt to show our partner that we are trying to “walk in their shoes”, we are building an opportunity for connection which repairs attachment.  Time, patience and practice are necessary to reap the rewards of this form of communication.

Some other ideas to cultivate connection include:

  • Sharing regular small moments of non-cancer related time, ideally free of distraction, to share a story or moment from the day
  • Making a list for one another about small tokens of appreciation your partner could do that you would enjoy
  • Creating an affirmative motto for living life with cancer as a family
  • Honestly, gently discussing the impact treatment will have on sexual intimacy, and finding or exploring acts of sexual intimacy that honors the situation as it is. trusting that the tenderness will facilitate the return to sexual health
  • Recalling together the tender, funny, moments of your story together, the reasons why you chose to be together through the ups and downs of life, and writing them down to reflect on later

We frequently need to revise our expectations for situations, especially when they are causing tremendous challenge.  Most of us have inadequate preparation for facing a life threatening condition, and that vulnerability can cause us to become defensive.  Some will rise to the challenge, others need extra support to get there.  Discussing this with your treatment team is really important, in order for them to connect you to the professional available.  It’s not a time to be shy to ask for help.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. 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: www.creative-transformations.com, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Intimacy and Parenting 0 comments on Parenting and Cancer, responding rather than reacting

Parenting and Cancer, responding rather than reacting

I will never forget the moment when my 9 year old son said to me, “I will probably get cancer one day”.  He said it in a rather matter-of-fact way, in the same way a child might say- “one day I will be old enough to drive”.  For me, it was like getting punched in the gut again by cancer, I was completely surprised and I felt sad.  To have your children lose a part of their innocence so young is hard to witness.

My protective mama bear of course wanted to reassure him that it won’t happen, but of course we both know that it is possible given the family cancer history.  Nor would it have been helpful to shut down the conversation by dismissing or diminishing this thought.  Instead, I followed these general guidelines for processing it:

  1. I took a deep breath, I had all sorts of conflicting feelings, thoughts and desires, but I knew I needed to just reconnect with my breath and slow down.
  2. Rather than launch into my own thoughts about this topic, I started off with a few questions to have him share more of his thoughts, concerns and feelings.  This allowed me to stay present to his need, instead of dumping my needs on top of him and potentially making him more anxious with information that he didn’t need to hear at that time.
  3. I did my best to not make promises that I could not keep or that I have no control over.  For example, I couldn’t promise him that he would never have cancer.  Yet when he asked to have genetic testing, I did explain that he could have that done once he was an adult if he still wanted it done.
  4. We explored that while we couldn’t necessarily control whether or not he would get cancer, that there were things we could do to support our own health and well being- including physical, emotional and spiritual health, and we identified what he does already to do this.
  5. I took the opportunity to check in about any “leftovers” from the cancer experience that we had just been through as a family, explaining to him that often major life experiences will ask to be processed over and over again, as a way of healing.

It is a beautiful thing to watch how resilient and strong our children can be with support, information and attending to their worries and pain.  Validation is a powerful intervention in our parenting toolbox.  It isn’t always easy to do, especially when our own feelings are triggered in the moment, but the reward of responding rather than reacting always pays off.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. 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: www.creative-transformations.com.

Intimacy and Parenting 0 comments on Parenting and cancer

Parenting and cancer

I was diagnosed with cancer when my boys were 5 and 7. It is exquisitely painful to watch your children be confronted with a tremendous loss of innocence at such a young age, while at the same time breathtaking and inspiring to watch how brave they are in the face of uncertainty. For example:


When I initially was diagnosed, we waited to understand the treatment plan before telling them what was happening. I was concerned because they both knew that my own mother had died from breast cancer before they were born, so I wanted to protect them from that fear as much as possible. Once it became clear that chemotherapy was going to cause me to lose my hair completely, we knew that we would have to discuss the side effects of my new medicine, but I was still hoping to protect them from the “C” word.


We sat them down to explain the side effects, and the first question out of my oldest son’s mouth was- “do you have cancer?” Initially I was evasive, saying it was something like that. However, when he asked me the same question 6 weeks later, I knew that he needed to hear it. Telling the boys helped us all, making it easier to undergo the 5 months of chemo prior to surgery.


It opened the door for them to express their worries and fears. They needed to know if I would die, when I was in pain, to express their anger at the cancer. My youngest took it upon himself to tell anyone who seemed curious, “This is my mom, she’s bald”. He was also very proud to tell people when my hair was starting to grow again.


The day before the double mastectomy, the kids had a half-day of school. This meant that not only was I trying to squeeze in a full day of work seeing clients in my private practice, but I also had to juggle getting home in time to take them off the bus, take them with me for the plastic surgeon to draw the surgery lines on my body, and pick up my husband from his work (since we only had one car) so that he could drop me back off at work to finish meeting with clients. It was one of those days where if any of the timing were to go off, we would be in trouble.


At the end of the appointment, my amazing plastic surgeon turned to the boys and asked them if they had any questions for her. My oldest asked with a strained voice “Will she die?” and my youngest told her, while looking her straight in the eye, “If she dies, I will kill you.” While of course we don’t condone violence, to watch them be vulnerable, brave, protective and honest about their feelings made me so proud of them. I knew that they worried about me dying throughout the treatment process, and I was really impressed with the way that they were able to talk about it.


So if you have children and you are beginning this process, be prepared that they are quite intuitive. Keep it as simple as possible, allow their questions to guide you as to what they are prepared to hear and need to understand. Honesty with them will allow them to be more open with their feelings, as well as to keep the sacred trust intact. We were able to start attending a support group for families with critically ill members at the Center for Grieving Children in Maine, http://www.cgcmaine.org/, which was a blessing for all of us. Hopefully there is a program in your area as well.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Subscribe now to the weekly blog and learn more about the individual sessions, offered in person and via the Internet, by visiting our website www.creative-transformations.com.