Receiving a cancer diagnosis is something that no one wants to hear. It’s frightening, disorienting, surreal, and complex. Looking back, I realized that my perspective of the process was fairly naive until I went through it. I had anticipated being given a “stage” which essentially tells the patient how developed their cancer is and whether or not it has spread. I was stage 3a (i.e. Locally advanced) because of the tumor size and the fact that it has spread to my lymph nodes. Due to advances in breast cancer research, doctors can now differentiate information that helps determine the course of treatment and long term recommendations based upon the types of breast cancer (13 different kinds- dependent upon where/how it has grown) and whether or not the cancer has been fed by hormones (progesterone, estrogen, HER-2). If it is not fed by those hormones, one is cast into the Triple Negative Breast Cancer camp, which was the case for me. What is tricky about being in the TNBC camp is that not only is it generally aggressive and difficult to treat, it is the ‘catch all’ category for non-hormone fed breast cancer, which makes it difficult to create targeted treatments that one can find in the hormone fed cancers.
During the diagnostic stage it became evident that how my cancer had grown was atypical, and there was concern that it had metastized to other parts of my body. It can be fun to be unique, but certainly not in this case. I went through additional biopsies and scans, delaying action because the long term goals would have been to prolong life rather than attempt to eliminate the cancer. Sitting with this tension, while jumping to the storm of appointments, procedures, information overload, and trying to retain some semblance of normalcy with work and family life was challenging. I knew I had to do what I could to hold on, to find center, to keep my body, mind, spirit and self connected together in the moment. To find my roots, and seek support to keep myself there.So how is it possible to do this? There are several ways, here is a sampling:
From my body: my body was the epicenter of the tangible cancer experience. I had found the lump initially after dreaming that I had breast cancer. In the weeks between that discovery and my initial doctor’s appointments, I watched it grow and become more firm. The day I went for the mammogram, I was fortunate to be able to have the biopsy done without having to wait for an appointment. The aching pain from the biopsy helped me understand this was not just a bad dream, which was scary but also grounding.
From my mind: it was hard to keep my mind from catastrophizing the situation, or from jumping to conclusions. So I gave it the task of staying present enough to absorb the information and problem solve how I was going to manage cancer treatment and continue to fulfill to the best of my abilities my roles as a mother, wife, friend, and self-employed psychotherapist. My mind was grounded in knowing it needed to be strategic in organizing the support we needed and communicating updates to our support system. Social media not only made this much more easier to do, but more importantly when I was feeling fragile the ability for people to reply so quickly gave me unparalleled strength to carry on.
From my spirit: my spirit has always been good at believing that any experience I have had can serve my desire to help others. I trusted that I could hold on in order to feel it’s value. The Hopi poem in this post sums my spiritual beliefs of finding center beautifully.
From my self: accepting the identity change of having a serious illness at a time I my life that I felt so healthy was disorienting. I remember seeing a print out from my oncologist regarding my mortality stats, and in it my health was rated as poor. Remaining grounded in who I was, meant accepting the uncertainty of who I would be once this was “over”.
So if you find yourself to feel untethered today, can you use the words of the Hopi prayer to find your center in your body, mind, spirit, or self?
– 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, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.