In a few short weeks, I turn 43. My mom and her sister were both 43 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. For 21 years, this was the milestone I thought of in my mind- if I make it beyond 43, then I won’t get cancer. Of course, I beat them to the punch by being diagnosed at 40. My aunt, 3 decades later, is living cancer free. My mom, 5 days after she turned 51, died from metastatic breast cancer. You may have already guessed what other milestones I have in my mind…

Because I have already been diagnosed with cancer, I think I assumed that this birthday would be less emotionally dense- my phrase for when my body is full of energetic sensations that come from deeply felt emotions.  But this week my body reminds me, through various cues, that the importance of this milestone has not been diminished by the fact the cancer question has been answered.  I feel a pain in my heart that has not been there for many years.

On one hand, I can feel myself wanting to distract from this pain by trying to analyze if I am being overly dramatic about it.  On the other hand, my creative spiritual side knows that this will be fuel for processing on the canvas of my breast casts, the many layers of the mother/daughter/sisterhood of cancer.  I now know what I wish to have for my birthday- the gift of time for art, to pay homage to this important milestone.

Our bodies often are the timekeepers of these milestones and anniversaries.  They are the ones that start releasing the energetic material of an important memory, almost like a reminder that we set ages ago and then forgot about.  Since many of these memories are stored within the context of grief, we often experience them as a heaviness inside.  If we allow ourselves time for introspection, the purpose of the release is often revealed to us- allowing for an Ah-Ha moment.

It can be very challenging to sit with this process of the energetic release.  Sometimes we may worry that if we fully allow ourselves to feel the pain, it will never stop.  Yet the opposite is true, the more we try to push away the pain, the more we suffer.  We can strike a compromise, when we set aside time to listen and experience the message, our body begins to trust us and with thoughtful planning we can craft a way to enter into and then exit an emotionally dense moment.  This will require listening to our personal cues of when we have reached our limits, and if that is something that you struggle with, then meeting with a therapist is highly recommended.

Process art can be an important ally when unpacking a milestone or anniversary.  It is effective because rather than ruminating over it in our minds, we are translating it onto paper.  This gives us the opportunity to literally get it off our chests, allowing us to have more breathing room as well as separation from it.  That distance can allow us to have a broader perspective of what we went through, to let go of what does not serve us, and to begin the process of making meaning.  This is the foundation of the individual sessions that I have designed as a tool for healing the body, mind, spirit, and self.

I share my story to honor the power of the collective- for the gift of vulnerability allows us to break the shackles of isolation.  “If you ask me what I came in this life to do, I will tell you.  I came to live out loud”- Emile Zola.

– 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.