Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual Young and Strong conference at Dana Farber in Boston. The Young and Strong Program was created to support the emotional and physical needs of young women, 19-39, who are diagnosed with breast cancer. The annual conference is a blend of personal stories, clinical updates and questions, opportunities to engage in experiential activities and connection. It is a nice blend that brings together the community.
Each time that I have been, it fuels my inspiration and mission, in addition to offering a time to connect to the sisterhood no one would ask to join, yet becomes like a second family- even if you have only just met. To stoke our resilient fires, we are well served by these opportunities to connect.
This year, one story that captured my attention was a woman who was recently diagnosed and treated for early stage breast cancer. In an effort to assure her that her prognosis was good, the oncologist called her cancer a like a “baby” in terms of being small and that treatment would just feel like a summer project.
While the intentions may have been from a desire to help, the ramifications were anything but. Initially, she sat with confusing feelings, trying to wrap her head around the notion that having a potentially life threatening diagnosis wasn’t a big deal. She didn’t feel like she needed to ask for the help of family and friends, nor initially did she think she should be a candidate for receiving support services. Fortunately, this did not prevent her from eventually engaging with the Young and Strong services, but it did take time to believe and accept that she was worthy of them.
Now that she is out of active treatment, the inevitable wall of feelings and experiences is descending upon her. And while intellectually she was anticipating it, based upon listening to the stories and advice from fellow survivors, it is still impacting her ability to find her way through it.
There is a movement within the cancer community to try and better address the issues of survivorship, a deep desire to help. However, unlike the various tests and tools we have to measure and dissect cancer, there is no “objective” measure for how far along someone is in the emotional healing process. No one can take a tube of blood from your arm and come back with a diagnostic report: 5% chemo brain, 15% fatigue, 20% PSTD, 30% of triggers neutralized, 50% emotionally healed… and so forth.
Cancer treatment is not fun, but generally there is both a game plan of how treatment and it’s side effects will be managed. We can have a survivorship plan to work off from, but it is going to be a lot more comprehensive to be successful, and it requires the ability to live with a lot of uncertainty about how fully you can recover in addition to managing the fears of recurrence.
It was my experience from my first Young and Strong conference that helped me conceptualize my role in serving others who are in treatment and in survivorship. We may never be the same again (honestly, what major life experience has ever landed you right back where you were?), but we do not need to accept that we will never “get over” having had cancer.
If you are wondering about finding your way through survivorship, Creative Transformations is offering a discussion in partnership with the MaineHealth Learning Resource Center and the Cancer Community Center on November 13, 2017. The discussion is free and open to the public, for pre-registration, please click on this link. If you are not able to attend yet want assistance in building your survivorship plan, I offer cancer coaching both in person and online. Or connect to your local cancer support resource center for professionals in your area who can help.
– 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 Individual 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.