As I prepare the webinar, Back to Life, Back to Reality: Decoding Cancer Survivorship, different stories are coming to mind of the cancer survivors who I have worked with in addition to my own healing process.

This first story is of a cancer survivor who was a few years post treatment. During treatment, she had experienced a variety of reactions to the fact that she had cancer. Some of the reactions contributed to her fear that she was going to die, even though she had a good prognosis, whereas other reactions were diminishing of her experience. For the most part, the reactions were from one extreme to another, with the exception of her immediate support system.

As treatment wound up, both sides of those extremes receded, yet no one imagined that perhaps moving on emotionally would be an issue. She returned to life as it was, sensing that things were not quite right but also needing and wanting to move on.

Fast forward and another medical issue rears its head, and while it was not life threatening, it involved significant changes to her lifestyle.  It also stirred the under-processed, under-recognized impact of cancer, which began to surface in unexpected ways. She began seeing an acupuncturist, who helped her identify that she likely needed to work through her cancer experience, and eventually she started working with me.

She scheduled an appointment because she trusted her acupuncturist, and she was desperate to feel better. She struggled to understand why she was having such a hard time, after all she had a loving and supportive partner and adult child, and felt like the other things “shouldn’t matter” because she was cancer free and knew of others who would never hear those words.

As I walked her through the common challenges cancer survivors face with regards to emotional healing, she began to tap into the various reactions to her cancer diagnosis and how it had impacted her at that time. We connected these reactions to how she herself had reacted to her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. She was sent home with the preparation guide that I developed for the healing the body session, a series of questions to help assess our experiences and relationship to our body.

At the following session, I lead her through the flow of the healing the body session- finding our jump off point, exploring it visually through art and then reflecting upon the work’s impact on her understanding of herself. As she talked me through her drawing, she had a breakthrough moment. She uncovered something unexpected, something that she had been holding on to, something that she had no idea she had been feeling.

In this moment, she recognized that the tissue which had been removed during the surgery, the tissue that held the cancer and the clear margins, the tissue that had been examined by pathologists, this tissue had never been returned to her, not had she been able to say goodbye.

Deep down, this had caused her to feel like she was not whole, a piece of her was missing, and that she was no longer able to protect it. This loss had not been acknowledged until this moment, and thus she had been carrying around grief that needed to be expressed.

This spontaneous release of sadness and deep appreciation of her need to grieve what she had been through, helped to transform the unease she had felt about “something being wrong”. The act of my witnessing and guiding her walk through the process, supported her validating her inner landscape- allowing her to lean in, feel through and then let go.

I have written before that our feelings are messengers, who hold key information about our experience. These messengers take their job seriously, and can come out sideways when we do not allow them to speak openly. When you develop ways to hear the message, you ultimately give yourself the gift of validation, which is a critical step in the emotional healing process.

-Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former 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, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.