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.

 

Healing Mind, Survivorship 0 comments on Facing uncertainty, from diagnosis to survivorship

Facing uncertainty, from diagnosis to survivorship

Uncertainty… it is an uncomfortable passenger along for the ride when you have been told you have cancer.  It plays a central role during the diagnosing phase, can settle down during the treatment phase, and really kicks into high gear when active treatment ends, the time of transition when either all intervention strategies are completed or perhaps you go onto a preventative medicine to decrease recurrence probability.

When active treatment ends, it can be a time of celebration, yet for the individual it is often a time of conflicting emotions.

Active treatment for cancer can feel grounding, in that there are typically concrete goals and strategies that the medical community takes to address the cancer.  Even though the plan can frequently have bumps in the road, especially regarding the physical body’s capacity to withstand the treatment, it is still a plan nevertheless, and your medical providers are keeping a close eye on how you are doing with it.

When active treatment ends, there is a notable slow down with the multitudes of appointments you have been attending.  The appointments provide structure and a lot of contact with medical professionals, which have a protective quality, a life preserver that keeps your head above water.

Whereas, survivorship feels a lot like one of those trust fall activities- you are standing, arms open wide, on the verge of letting go, falling blindly, back into the arms of those who have agreed to catch you. It takes tremendous courage to leave the ground that feels so solid- yet if you wish for full emotional recovery, the only way to get there is to go through it.

Facing uncertainty often involves tightening up the body, pulling in to decide if you have to fight or flee. This is totally appropriate when you are facing an oncoming car or something immediately life threatening, but when it is the possibility of life ending, tightening up is more likely to increase anxiety and distress, while decreasing resiliency.

This is why I am such a big fan of yoga, for the practice actively encourages to cultivate awareness of our tension while simultaneously inviting us to surrender to it- to take care of ourselves and be gentle rather than forceful with our stuck places.  If you are new to yoga, I encourage you to start with one of the more slower, gentler forms- like Hatha or Kripalu.

On November 13th, Beth Eilers of Healthful Counseling and I will be giving a presentation at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine.  Offered in collaboration with MaineHealth Learning Resource Center, our presentation, “Back to Life, Back to Reality?!”, is all about navigating survivorship. It is free to attend, pre-registration is required, which you can do right now by clicking on this link.  We look forward to meeting you!

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Healing Self, Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Acceptance + Gratitude = Full Spectrum Living

Acceptance + Gratitude = Full Spectrum Living

“Have you noticed this bump before?” asked my oncologist at a follow up appointment.

“Hmmm… I don’t think so” I replied (surprise and confusion (have I?) step into the room).

“I don’t see it mentioned in my notes, I think we should either decide to monitor it or schedule an ultrasound.  What would you like to do?” my onc replies.

“Ummm… (anxiety stops by to say hello) not sure.”  A little time passes as I mull it over.  As I was feeling the little bump, I asked for clarification where she considered the bump to be since my foobs tend to confuse my internal body map.

“The chest wall”.  (Adrenaline starts to flow, the chest wall is scary place for breast cancer survivors)

“Ultrasound please”

In the two weeks between the appointment and the ultrasound I knew I needed to practice acceptance of the various thoughts and feelings that crossed my path.  If I were to draw it, I imagine a narrow path surrounded by whirlpools and quick sand.  To continue on, I needed to be mindful that they were there, recognizing that I was capable of walking past them without having to be sucked into them or having to will them to go away.  They exist as a natural response to potential danger as well as reminders of the healing process all survivors need to walk through in order to heal.

Our culture tends to value the power of gratitude, which many of us interpret as focusing on what is positive.  As I have written before, I am a believer in positive thinking, but not when it is taken to the extremes of causing shame, guilt, avoidance, and so forth of our “negative” thoughts and feelings.  Interpreting feelings as being good or bad lends itself to black and white, concrete, judgmental thinking that deeply impacts our capacity to embrace the gray tones of flexibility, non-judgmental openness that are the building blocks of being a resilient person.

What we don’t always anticipate is that if we rely on repressing, avoiding, or freezing out all of the negative thoughts and feelings, we also repress our ability to feel confident, joyful, peaceful, content and so forth.  If we desire the positive feelings, we must make room for all of the other feelings as well.

In fact, if we proceed down the path of repression, we ultimately lose the capacity to feel anything at all.  While the short term impact may seem attractive since it alleviates pain, the long term implications are often very detrimental to our well being and can create a lot of anxiety about how to manage when finally we reach the point of no return and they erupt.

If our feelings are messengers that carry important information to help us survive, turning them off would be like turning off the emergency warning system that helps us prepare for a disaster (like the tsunami warning system).  Will the tsunami not come simply because we turned off the warning system?

Returning back to the title of this blog, practicing acceptance of our thoughts and feelings allows for a more complete and complex view of gratitude.  Gratitude for our blessings as well as for the challenges we have faced.  By accepting them, we access new levels of resiliency, which strengthen our ability to manage adversity and increase our confidence to do so.  And with that, we gain the opportunity to live more fully, more thoughtfully, more lovingly with ourselves and others.

– 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 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.

 

Survivorship 0 comments on What Survivorship and Whiplash have in common

What Survivorship and Whiplash have in common

Active treatment has ended, time to celebrate!  Yet so often this party comes to an abrupt halt for the person who has ended cancer treatment.  You might even feel like you have been whiplashed…

whip·lash (h)wipˌlaSH verb

  1. 1.

jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly, typically so as to cause injury.

 

Survivorship can often feel like whiplash because at any moment, we can swing from one emotion to the next.  It’s complex and filled with internal conflict. It might look something like this:

You are happy treatments done AND scared the cancer will come back

Your loved ones are so relieved and ready to get back on track AND you are feeling blindsided by triggers of the emotions and experiences you suppressed to get through treatment

People are going back to life as it was AND you are wondering who the heck you are, because most of us feel permanently changed by the cancer experience

Treatment has ended AND your body, mind, spirit and self are left with all of the side effects and scars that were left behind

The first time cancer turned my life upside down, I was 26 and my mom had died from metastatic breast cancer.  The second time, I was 40 and diagnosed with stage 3a triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive and difficult cancer to treat.

When you are faced with a life threatening condition, the doctors tell you what the treatment plan is as well as all of the side effects that come along with it.  For most of us, we nod- perhaps advocate for alternatives, but ultimately we each need to dive into treatment independent of the side effects, because what is the alternative- death?

So you put your head down, gather your resources and support systems, and jump in- hoping that rope that connects you to higher, safe ground does not break.  Treatment is not about being in calm waters, but neither is survivorship- at least initially.

When we finally resurface from treatment, we are hauled back onto “safer” ground, to the cheers of our loved ones.  We want to join them in their bliss, and we are there to a certain degree, but when active treatment ends that is when the emotional recovery begins.  And that process is not nearly as concrete as the cancer treatment can be, which adds to the intensity of it.

My first dance with cancer caused me to pursue a career as an art therapist, because my mom’s death helped me understand acutely that grieving is an important part of the human experience and many of us don’t know how to do it successfully.  When I was diagnosed myself, I knew that art therapy would be what I turned to help myself emotionally recover.

One of the things that kept me going, was the belief that one day I would use my personal and professional experience to help others heal.  When treatment ended, I began to slowly heal.  I was surprised to find myself going to just as many appointments as I did for cancer.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that while many of us need to emotionally heal from cancer, we are quite burnt out from attending so many appointments.  Thus I started designing services that could meet a person where they were at, interventions that were effective and would allow me to drop into a person’s healing process, share some guidance and tools that they could learn and take with them.  Kind of like those magical encounters, when you bump into the right person at the right time, and it turns your day around.

– 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.