Being diagnosed with cancer, or another life threatening condition, is often seen as the beginning of something.  An undoubtedly unanticipated and harrowing journey.  A day, or period of time, that will not be erased easily from memory.  An anniversary that requests to be reprocessed each year, to allow us to let go of what needs to be released and offers the opportunity for reflection- just like a birthday often does.

When I am introducing the concept of art therapy to individuals and groups, I often use the memory of being diagnosed as a jumping off point.  It is something that is universal to those who have faced a life threatening condition, independent of where they currently stand within their personal situation.  I also chose this point because it is multidimensional and full of material to work with- because this moment- or series of moments- are laden with thoughts, feelings and sensations.  If you are curious, click on this link, which will take you to a Facebook live video I did with CancerGrad, in which we talk about art therapy and then finish with a guided art/meditation experience of processing our diagnosis.

Processing our experience of being diagnosed is important, because when we wish to reclaim our sense of self, we need to let those critical moments speak.  They often hold suppressed material, because in that moment we are dealing with very strong thoughts, feelings and emotions, and it is not possible to unpack them all at once.  So each year when we cycle towards that moment, we consciously or not begin to bring up that which we still need to go through.  It’s like an onion, there are layers and layers to explore as we heal.  I have seen it stimulate strong self critical feelings, because it can be unsettling to be brought back to what sometimes feels like the beginning- as if no time has passed at all.

Another factor that can add complexity, is managing the narrative that others may wish to lay over our personal experience.  It can be very challenging for our family and friends to see us struggle, or they themselves may be struggling with their own suppressed experience of witnessing our process of being diagnosed.  One of the fundamental components of a PTSD diagnosis is experiencing or witnessing a life threatening experience and then re-experiencing it through intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories.  While it is often stronger for the person who was diagnosed, it is not unusual for loved ones to be struggling themselves and in fact is often made worse by feelings of helplessness- for the loved ones can’t take on the direct treatment experience.

If you are on the verge of that cancerversary, set aside some time for yourself to allow for contemplation.  Cancer does not have to be a dominant part of your identity, but it is an important chapter in the story of your life.  A chapter that needs to be revisited and rewritten, so that over time it can become fully integrated into the story of your life.

– 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. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; 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.