Many life threatening conditions require surgery to treat the condition, and for some there is the opportunity to reconstruct what has been lost. I think for many of us, reconstruction is the symbolic act of trying to put back the pieces of ourselves, to feel whole again. If it is our expectation that this act alone will bring us a sense of peace, we are likely going to be disappointed. It is an important step, but truly pulling the pieces back together is a much longer process.
When you are planning for a single or double mastectomy, you simultaneously need to decide whether or not you want to have reconstruction. For some, surgery is the first intervention for breast cancer treatment, which complicates the emotional process and gives less time for contemplation. We’ve all heard the silver lining statements, like “At least you get to have perky boobs for the rest of your life”. While these statements are often well-intentioned, they can minimize the loss that comes with losing a natural part of your body.
It’s a very personal decision, there are many types of reconstruction to chose from, each with their own risks and benefits. I did chose reconstruction, and I remember laughing with a friend that I was not interested in shooting for a reconstructed nipple, because the last thing I wanted to face was the tissue becoming necrotic and falling off. Frankly, I felt like the process of mastectomy and reconstruction was enough, and the last thing I would want it to add salt to the wound.
I have this term I like to use- emotionally dense- to capture that moment in which we are profoundly feeling and experiencing life. The amount of time that passes during an emotionally dense experience is less important than the impact it has on our life perspective. Reconstruction is one of those emotionally dense times, for many it happens at the end of treatment and the beginning of life post-treatment. which is nearly as terrifying as being told you had cancer in the first place.
If you are feeling at a loss following reconstruction or treatment ending, give yourself the gift of time to explore the pieces that need to be put back together. We may wish to rush back to our lives, but if we do so without giving ourselves time to process we are going to be much more vulnerable to the unfinished business.
If we were sitting together in an art therapy session, I would be encouraging you to find a way to represent symbolically your reconstruction. We would identify what the different pieces were that you are putting back together. It may be layering work on canvas or paper or breaking and reconstructing work. Find that voice inside which is whispering to you about the direction to take in a therapeutic art project. Follow it’s lead, by taking a step you will be guided as to where you need to go next. And if you need a little help, find a local art therapist or consider one of the individual sessions offered remotely or in person through Creative Transformations.
– 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.