Chemotherapy was the first intervention chosen to treat my breast cancer, given the size of the tumor and the fact that I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC is the catch-all category of breast cancer that is not fed by estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 protein, Scientists are working hard to develop targeted therapies for this type of breast cancer; however, they believe that there is actually multiple forms of breast cancer that fall under it, which makes it more difficult to treat. Therefore, chemotherapy is often recommended first so that the oncologists can see if it is effectively killing the cancer.
To be prepared for chemo, I had a port surgically placed to protect my veins from the 5 months of poison I was going to receive. My port was a blessing, because it eased the anxiety and pain from all of the needle sticks, but it terrified me because one of the risks was it could carry an infection straight to my heart. Having to make such enormous medical decisions in the chaos of the diagnosing phase is so representative of the challenges one faces after being told you have a life threatening condition. TNBC is a very aggressive form of cancer, and mine was locally advanced, so there was no luxury of time for decision making.
Once treatment had ended, I turned to art to process the experience. I had all of these breast casts that we had done prior to surgery, on the anniversary of my first chemo treatment (which coincidentally was also my wedding anniversary), I sat down and processed the experience on the cast. Instinctively, I knew what I wanted to do, and as I worked lines of poetry emerged that validated my emotional needs in that moment. It came first in Spanish, and then I translated it for the cast. “Oh Red Devil (nickname for one of my chemos), I am here on my knees, please save my life, because I am not done yet, I have work and purpose still”.
It’s normal to fear that dipping into a painful memory will make it worse, but this rarely is the outcome. In fact, the externalizing of our pain onto paper is tremendously relieving as we are carrying the memory within our body, mind, and spirit. Kind of similar to making a shopping list, once you have it on paper you no longer have to worry that you will forget what you need.
Additionally, witnessing your experience in a tangible, visible form is self-validating, which is an important component of healing. Our feelings are messengers, they need an audience that is listening. When we are compassionate and accepting of them, they feel satisfied that their work is done and they fade away. Experiences that are complicated often bring out conflicting feelings and needs, and they may need repeated audiences with us in order to feel heard, especially if we have developed the habit of banishing or repressing them.
When we practice expressing our thoughts and feelings through process art, we can gain a deeper experience of listening to them as well as understanding them because they are no longer running around in circles in our head if we are placing them on paper. I have experienced and witnessed many “A-ha” moments from process art making, in fact they often come faster and more frequently through art because of the benefit of gaining distance visually from our internal struggle.
After I had completed my Chemo cast, I left it alone for several months. An opportunity arose for me to tell my treatment story through art, and I pulled it out to spend some time reflecting about that experience. The words poured easily out of me, I wrote a few poems. Here is one below:
The battle to kill the cancer
Feels like a death march of self
Wondering which cells are going to outlast the other
Each week we measure
Making sure the damage is not irreversible
Holding our breaths to see if
The medicine that kills
Is killing effectively.
My body grows more tired with each round
I cling on to whatever normalcy I can muster
My onc must have nerves of steel and deep conviction in the treatment
For to observe this battle, day in and day out
Must be brutal
Come , she says,
This will soon be over
And then you can rest.
– 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.