Healing Spirit, Survivorship 0 comments on Finding the light within

Finding the light within

One of the things that gets many of us through cancer treatment, is finding some reason to do it in the first place.  Yes, we are wired to seek survival, but often it is the people in our lives and/or our own purpose/life path that we focus on to get us through the worst of it.

Having something external to focus on can be very useful in the height of a crisis, it helps us to look ahead and be better able to compartmentalize that which we have little control over in the present.  But what happens when what we are focusing upon begins to shift, crack or even disappear from view?  Cancer treatment takes a big toll on our support system and often impacts our capacity to function in our purpose or life path.

When we feel that fundamental shift away from our loved ones and our life path, it can be very disorienting, confusing, and isolating.  We may feel as if we are floating, unthethered from something that was secure, suddenly thrust into the deep sea of uncertainty- with no clear direction of where to find solid ground.

It’s not uncommon to feel panicky when this happens, because while cancer clearly throws a wrench into our health, we do not always anticipate the way it is going to impact other aspects of our lives.  When we start to feel this way, the goal is to find a way to support yourself through it, because as Pema Chödrön reminds us:

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

So if you find yourself in this place, try to create some distance between yourself and the panic you feel inside, through slow, deep breaths and soothing imagery. The goal is not to avoid, repress or annihilate the panic, but rather to accept that it is there yet separate from you- giving yourself and your feelings enough space for you to co-exist.

If you feel untethered from your loved ones, it may be that they themselves feel untethered as well, for to watch someone go through cancer takes a lion’s share of  courage.

Sitting with the void, sitting with uncertainty, pushes us to learn and grow.  Find the flicker of light within, and let it be the focal point, until once again you find solid ground.

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

 

Survivorship 0 comments on Tips for living and working during cancer treatment

Tips for living and working during cancer treatment

This week’s blog is a link to a post I wrote for Celebrate Woman Today. The assignment was a HOW TO article on being self employed and going through cancer treatment; however, the tips I share can apply to anyone facing a significant health concern who is also trying to balance responsibilities and still feel as normal as possible.

Click here to read more- the post includes action shots of myself leading a Zumba routine while bald. Whoot whoot!  And thank you Laura, for giving me this opportunity to write for your site.

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

Survivorship 0 comments on Back to Life, Back to Reality?!? Finding our way when active treatment ends

Back to Life, Back to Reality?!? Finding our way when active treatment ends

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual Young and Strong conference at Dana Farber in Boston.  The Young and Strong Program was created to support the emotional and physical needs of young women, 19-39, who are diagnosed with breast cancer.  The annual conference is a blend of personal stories, clinical updates and questions, opportunities to engage in experiential activities and connection.  It is a nice blend that brings together the community.

Each time that I have been, it fuels my inspiration and mission, in addition to offering a time to connect to the sisterhood no one would ask to join, yet becomes like a second family- even if you have only just met.  To stoke our resilient fires, we are well served by these opportunities to connect.

This year, one story that captured my attention was a woman who was recently diagnosed and treated for early stage breast cancer.  In an effort to assure her that her prognosis was good, the oncologist called her cancer a like a “baby” in terms of being small and that treatment would just feel like a summer project.

While the intentions may have been from a desire to help, the ramifications were anything but.  Initially, she sat with confusing feelings, trying to wrap her head around the notion that having a potentially life threatening diagnosis wasn’t a big deal.  She didn’t feel like she needed to ask for the help of family and friends, nor initially did she think she should be a candidate for receiving support services.  Fortunately, this did not prevent her from eventually engaging with the Young and Strong services, but it did take time to believe and accept that she was worthy of them.

Now that she is out of active treatment, the inevitable wall of feelings and experiences is descending upon her.  And while intellectually she was anticipating it, based upon listening to the stories and advice from fellow survivors, it is still impacting her ability to find her way through it.

There is a movement within the cancer community to try and better address the issues of survivorship, a deep desire to help.  However, unlike the various tests and tools we have to measure and dissect cancer, there is no “objective” measure for how far along someone is in the emotional healing process.  No one can take a tube of blood from your arm and come back with a diagnostic report: 5% chemo brain, 15% fatigue, 20% PSTD, 30% of triggers neutralized, 50% emotionally healed… and so forth.

Cancer treatment is not fun, but generally there is both a game plan of how treatment and it’s side effects will be managed. We can have a survivorship plan to work off from, but it is going to be a lot more comprehensive to be successful, and it requires the ability to live with a lot of uncertainty about how fully you can recover in addition to managing the fears of recurrence.

It was my experience from my first Young and Strong conference that helped me conceptualize my role in serving others who are in treatment and in survivorship.  We may never be the same again (honestly, what major life experience has ever landed you right back where you were?), but we do not need to accept that we will never “get over” having had cancer.

If you are wondering about finding your way through survivorship, Creative Transformations is offering a discussion in partnership with the MaineHealth Learning Resource Center and the Cancer Community Center on November 13, 2017.  The discussion is free and open to the public, for pre-registration, please click on this link.  If you are not able to attend yet want assistance in building your survivorship plan, I offer cancer coaching both in person and online.  Or connect to your local cancer support resource center for professionals in your area who can help.

– 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 Mind, Healing via Creativity 0 comments on The tentacles, layers and roots of our lives

The tentacles, layers and roots of our lives

Have you ever had the experience of talking about one life event, only to have it trigger all sorts of thoughts, feelings and memories that initially would have seem unrelated?  I see this happen all of the time in my own life and in the conversations that I have with clients.  When it happens, people often express surprise at how the conversation can wander in such unexpected ways.

To which, I always smile and reply:

Talking about our personal lives often feels like a series of interconnected tentacles, layers or root systems, and that our bodies and minds store them together- even when we might not have considered throwing them into the same box.  It is the quality of the emotions that are present which set off a wild and spontaneous ride through our psyche

As a therapist, I am always thrilled to see this happen in session, because it is evidence that the individual feels relaxed enough to just follow the path that is being laid out by our psyche.  It can almost feel like a state of being awake and dreaming, because we are unpacking the box as it is, rather then predetermining what was in there in the first place.

To stimulate this processing, we often look for a jump off point in a person’s story, or use a prompt to get the juices going.  This is the intention behind the individual art therapy sessions that have been designed to help heal emotionally from cancer and other life threatening experiences.  To fully heal from cancer, it is going to take time, and I wanted to design a tool that people can use as they move forward with their lives.

As Shai Tubali writes:

Emotions cannot evolve though intellectual comprehension; there must be direct access to them, access that allows them to go through a transformation from the plane in which they actually exist

When we find our leap off point, and then explore through art, writing and ultimately sharing through talking, we find ourselves leaning into what has happened and experiencing the emotions through an observational place- as we are trying to represent them in some way.  This allows us greater ability to move in and out of a painful experience, rather then going around and around in an unending thought loop inside of our minds.  The result allows us to begin the process of transformation.

Sometimes we need to move in and out of something rather quickly, in order to get used to the process.  Kind of like moving your body in and out of the ocean in order to acclimate it to the temperature, before leaping in completely.  If we respect our pacing while challenging ourselves to continue to move towards fully jumping in, we will find a greater trust in our own ability to do so.

So tell me, where do you wish to begin?

– 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 Reaching towards

Reaching towards

Prior to experiencing cancer, my psychotherapy practice had specialized in eating disorder and trauma work, which I continue to do and love. This weeks blog is inspired by the difficult and life changing work that these clients take on as they heal, and the parallels I see with healing emotionally from a life threatening illness.

Reaching towards… it is an act of bravery, reaching towards how you want to feel and be, through the walls and barriers that have been constructed in order to keep that you safe.  The protection that may have once been necessary in order to survive, but now has become so life limiting that it threatens the very life the walls were built to protect.

Reaching towards… it is an act of faith, because you are reaching towards something that will hopefully serve you well, while recognizing that their is great uncertainty in its outcome.

Reaching towards… it is an act of breaking the stagnancy, of recognizing you have done what you can emotionally and physically to take the next step, and now the one thing left to do is to take the next step.

Reaching towards… takes us out of the zone in which we feel comfortable (even if it is not comforting), and into the zone in which we grow.

When you have cancer, there can be a sense of urgency to make important changes within one’s life and self, especially if you have been given the gift of a clean bill of health.  This urgency can become paralyzing at times, especially when we are feeling vulnerable to what we have been through.

If this is the case for you at this time, what might you imagine that first step to be?  How might you begin to reach forward in your life, while safeguarding some time and energy for processing what you have been through?

It is times like this, when I look for inspiration in the poem “The Journey”, written by Mary Oliver.  Sometimes the voices she references are those of others who perhaps hold us back; however, sometimes the voices she references come from the fear we hold inside about the unknown.  Whichever may be true for you, can you take the spirit of leaving it all behind, in order to reclaim your own unique voice?

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determine to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.

– 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 Storytelling, a powerful tool for healing

Storytelling, a powerful tool for healing

This week I had the opportunity to do an in-service for the Dempsey Center staff about Expressive Arts Therapy. It gave me the opportunity to share again the healing power of art through the example of the breast casts that I used to process my cancer experience, which was powerful.

However, it was what happened after the presentation, when we moved into the experiential exercise that really spoke volumes. I asked everyone to get in touch with either something personal or an experience related to their work of being in service to cancer patients and their loved ones.  I asked them  to go inside and figure out how they felt about what they chose, the impact it has had on their body, mind, spirit, and self. When they were in touch with what they wanted to explore, I asked them to represent it through color, shape and form.

What came forth was a reminder of how powerful it is to take the risk and share your story. The exercise of putting it out onto paper made the stories more tangible to tell, and when the story and images were shared, it added depth and richness to the experience. In that moment of witnessing, we became more intimately connected to one another, seeing our different roles from a new lens.  For a moment, we embodied the experience of another, which in turn allowed us to connect more deeply to our own.

This form of art making, the visual journalling process, is a practice of being in silence with ourselves, in an active, curious way.  Silence can be an intimidating prospect for many, especially in the world we live in.  Yet silence allows us to create an attunement to our inner world and an attunement to the experience of others, strengthening our capacity for compassion.  Since art making is a form of moving meditation, it can build a bridge to feeling greater ease with silence.

It takes courage and trust to share something personal. It takes time to build confidence and trust with the ability to share, so be gentle with yourself if you are not ready to share actively with others.  The rewards we reap from sharing and witnessing help stoke the fire of resiliency and decrease our sense of isolation.  As one of my favorite quotes reminds me:

If you ask me what I came in this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud ~ Emile Zola

So tell me, what is the story you wish to share?

– 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.