The summer I was 9, a friend and I got pulled far away from the shore by an ocean riptide. Thankfully we were together on an inflatable float, but we were scared. It happened in the blink of an eye.

As we began kicking our hearts out to go back into shore, I remember looking down into the water and becoming terrified by the shadows I saw. It nearly overwhelmed me, but my survival instinct kicked in, and I forced myself to only look ahead. I decided I would only focus on the end goal, to reach the safety of the shore, which we did.

When you are confronted with cancer, it too is an overwhelming experience. Part of coping with it is being able to keep your gaze looking slightly ahead, especially when you’re in survival mode. The downside of this, is struggling to do so while also giving your thoughts and feelings room to express themselves.

This is where resiliency comes in. Dictionary.com offers these definitions of resiliency, both have potential to be used as a metaphor for moving from surviving to thriving with cancer:

1.the power or ability to return to the original form, position,  etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.
2.ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.
Going through cancer diagnosis and treatment physically and emotionally puts you into situations that bend, compress, or stretch you. When that is happening, working on your elasticity, ie your ability to be mentally and physically adaptable, is very useful for survival and will contribute to your ability to thrive.
The ability to recover from illness and adversity isn’t only for those who will finish treatment, rather it can be possible at any point in the experience. I love the word buoyancy in this definition of resiliency. It’s a beautiful metaphor of being able to keep your head above water while accepting what is. Similar to what I experienced as a child who was far away from shore.
Here are my top 5 tips for boosting your resiliency
  1. Practicing the art of welcoming the unwelcome. This idea comes from a book written by Guy Meadows on overcoming insomnia, called The Sleep Book. When you’re confronted with something like cancer, there’s going to be many things about the experience that are hard to accept. However, if you want to boost your resiliency, it’s important to find ways to overcome the impulse to avoid or reject, as this will only deplete you in the long run. Welcoming the unwelcome is a way to validate that something is not wanted, making room for accepting the full spectrum of any given moment.
  2. Staying curious. When you’re curious, you’re inviting a quality of openness into your psyche. Someone who is curious is not trying to dominate, predetermine, or control a situation. When you’re curious, you’re shifting into an active investigation mode. Being curious allows you to see something more clearly without the crippling effect of self criticism and judgement.
  3. Asking yourself: what is possible for me, right now, in this present moment? Ok, confession time, I love to strategize. I find it to be a very dynamic process. However, the downside is that when I’m in strategizing mode, I’m not tuned into the present moment. I’m future focused. Staying present with the moment can be a real challenge, especially if you’re struggling with acceptance. Asking yourself what’s possible encourages resiliency by staying true to what is, while seeking options. This question builds self-nurturing, and supports the practice of being curious.
  4. Meeting your needs and accepting support. If you want to boost your resiliency, it’s important to be really honest about what you can do for yourself, while accepting support when it feels like a good fit. It’s not selfish to accept the support AND it’s not selfish to have boundaries around who helps and what the support is.
  5. Finding ways to safely explore and process your thoughts and feelings. This is generally most successful with a blend of actions and activities, not a “one size fits all” kind of approach. Individual and group therapy, workshops, conferences, self care activities, and so forth fall into this category. As an art therapist and cancer survivor, I advocate for art and creativity as an essential tool for healing. You can read more about why in the blog I wrote for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, ahead of the experiential workshops I am facilitating at their annual metastatic conference this April.

If you’d like to boost your resiliency, here are some upcoming opportunities to work with me! And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to sign up to receive my blog by email.

What do you do to keep yourself resilient? I’d love to hear your thoughts, let’s chat in the comments below!

-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 emotionally from cancer. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer the self assessment toolcancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, virtual workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.