When you have been through something traumatic, like having cancer, it’s common to develop habits around managing the leftovers from the experience. When you are fearing that cancer could return, it is really difficult to see constant reminders of what you have been through. Like surgery scars, missing hair, brain fog, and so forth.

Yet, if you want to really feel like you’ve moved beyond the experience of having cancer, you are going to have to address those habits at some point. While these habits might initially help you avoid discomfort, in the long run that avoidance amplifies the unprocessed pain that we have been through and can cause you to feel more anxious or depressed, rather than less.

One example that comes to mind is the story of a client who came in to experience art as therapy. She was a young breast cancer survivor with three children, someone who had been able to reach the coveted NED status- no evidence of disease. She felt appreciative of being cancer free, yet experienced a lot of anxiety about cancer coming back.

In our work together, she was able to identify how she avoided fully washing her chest, because she was afraid that she would find a lump again. We explored this through art, her experience of avoidance and fear, and I guided her to use the art to see how she might be able to support herself. Through this guidance, she was able to connect with the color yellow, as a warm, safe and supportive color.

The change was visible as she drew the yellow color around her image of anxiety and fear. Her body began to relax, her shoulders help less tension. I suggested that she bring in the energy of yellow with her the next time she showered, and she found it to be highly effective in breaking the avoidance behavior while also feeling less anxiety about washing.

It was a significant step towards reclaiming her connection towards feeling safe again in her body. The anxiety and fear that had been driving her to avoid was less dominant, allowing her to decrease the tension without having to control the outcome. Since cancer is a reminder that you don’t have total control, taking steps towards accepting that through actively supporting yourself can decrease the distress that comes as you face what is causing you fear.

Next week I am going to be releasing my free self assessment tool that I have developed to help you identify the ways in which cancer has impacted your body, mind, spirit, and self. It will come with the link to the virtual workshop: Back to Life Back to Reality: Decoding Cancer Survivorship. That is a space limited workshop, which will allow a lot of time for participants to share with one another in addition to learning how to move forward. So stay tuned!

-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.