I was reflecting recently about the differing opinions/perspectives on life after cancer (or any life threatening condition) and the role it plays in re-configuring our sense of self, our identity.  Someone reflected about how some people seem to want to disown/disavow their experience of having cancer whereas others are perceived to be fully immersed in their identity as a cancer survivor. I am a believer in finding the balance, which I will discuss below, but here is some food for thought to start us off: while I can appreciate that some people may come across as fully immersed in the cancer survivor identity, would you question it if they were experiencing was adjusting to parenthood? starting college? or a new job?

It’s important to keep in mind that our major life experiences absolutely shape our sense of self, especially when we are in the process of integrating that experience into our personal schema.  So there is no shame in having the need to explore, discuss, and possibly display this aspect of ourselves.  But just like anything in life, it is important to recognize that remaining stuck or overly focused on one part of our life experience is not fully being present to the moment or one’s complete identity.  And it is at the core of the work I do, to help people find the tools they need to process what they have experienced, so that it does integrate itself- rather than fracture us.

The tricky part is, it’s not like we can sit down and systematically go through the process of grieving from the start until the end.  We can’t possibly plot out all of the exact steps- small or large- that we must take in order to “fix” our identity dilemma.  And when you are in a lot of physical and emotional pain to begin with, it is very challenging to trust that you will have enough stamina and patience to go through it.

Therefore, rather than focusing the “to do” list of grieving, we need to cultivate a practice of recognizing when we are physically and emotionally exhibiting signs that we need to set aside some time for reflection to experience and release what kernel or nugget of our grief is ready to be explored.  In the beginning, it is most useful to find consistent and predictable check in moments with yourself, because it will create increased trust with yourself that you are giving yourself the gift of time and attention- rather than creating tension because you are attempting to avoid or repress a need.

It is understandable that many of us are unsure of how to support ourselves through grieving, which is why we might vacillate between ruminating, avoiding or repressing it.  This is why I developed the protocol for using a visual journal, because it can serve as a way to contain and capture an experience as we are developing our ability to sit with and observe our pain.  When we capture it through color, shape, or form, we are releasing it from our physical self which creates an unburdening.  When we feel ready to practice adding reflection into what we capture, we begin to deepen our understanding of what we have been through, which eventually leads to it’s integration into our identity.

– 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.