If you’ve read my blog before, you already know that I’m both an art therapist and a breast cancer survivor. You also probably know that in my 20s, I was a caregiver for my mom when she has metastatic breast cancer. Perhaps you’re aware that since 2016, I’ve been doing what I can to support the health, wellness, and emotional healing of people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, because I believe that everyone deserves to live a life in which cancer’s not running the show. Even if the reality is that cancer’s going to be an indefinite part of your life.
When treatment ended for me in 2015, I felt a bizarre mixture of relief, guilt, disbelief, and constant uncertainty of what the future was going to be like. Certainly I was glad to get a break from the constant doctor’s appointments, until I realized that it wouldn’t change much with ongoing monitoring and the healing work I had to do. What I felt the most was that up until that moment, I’d been apart of an incredible team of doctors who help me understand, step-by-step, what I needed to do next and how to manage it physically.
All of the sudden, I was mostly a team of one, who needed to assess exactly what was “wrong” with me. I had to become the leader who would drive the healing process, because there was no centralized, coordinated response or map I could follow. I felt blindsided by the way I was suddenly responsible for figuring this all out, which says a lot considering that I’ve always been an independent problem solver.
I was so thankful for the treasure trove of memories and small comments from my mom that I had apparently tucked away, like a squirrel looking for acorns in the midst of winter. It was those reminders of what she shared about reclaiming her physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health that gave me a little bit of context to get started. Those reminders, plus learning from my support group and online groups, allowed me to understand that the process was likely to feel lonely, precarious, and everlasting, because it seemed like the scars that cancer left behind would be at best tolerated. Ugh.
That didn’t match how I wanted to feel post treatment. I knew that my mom carried emotional scars that she never fully resolved. I also knew that because of my age and my family history, I didn’t have the guarantee of living forever (not that anyone does, of course, but most of my friends were living without having to face this reality so directly). I also felt like I owed it to myself and my family to figure it out so that we could make the most of our lives together.
I’m glad that I’m stubborn enough, creative enough, and driven enough that I saw the looming challenge and took it on. Each time I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of healing, I refocused my thoughts towards what I could do in that moment to support myself and to acknowledge the small changes towards healing that kept me going.
Eventually I became physically strong enough to take on the emotional healing, which I found through using the power of art as storytelling. I’d used it to heal from my mom’s death, and I trusted it would help me again. My plaster breast casts became my canvas. I sat down to tell the story of what I’ve been through, and then expanded the exploration to the less tangible ways that breast cancer had impacted my life. What I found was that each time I sat down to paint, I felt my way through the darkness of the experience and always found the peaceful joy that comes with telling my story, honestly and authentically.
This formed the basis of understanding how I could support the cancer community through my work. As I began to develop the offerings I’d run through Creative Transformations, my mission and purpose became clearer and clearer. Each time I engaged with my community, it came back loud and clear that the psychology of cancer was misunderstood and under-addressed.
In the midst of my work, I started writing an art therapy book for breast cancer with the intention to guided women to use the process I had created. The book was influenced by the conversations with the community and witnessing how my art therapy tools were helping. It was such an exciting project to work on, one that I plan to publish one day.
I was eager to use the materials from my art therapy book now, so last fall I launched a 12 session virtual art therapy group for breast cancer. In the group, I saw my creation come alive, affirming that it was needed, wanted, and effective. The women worked hard and found it to be so beneficial that we decided to keep it going. This is the love from which the virtual art therapy from breast cancer community has sprung (and since it’s spring, that’s synchronicity in action).
As the quote from Helen Keller reminds us, we can do our healing work independently, on our own, and find a satisfactory response. However, when you heal in community? Well, let’s just say you amplify your own results, and the results of others, from the support you give and receive, an effect that you can’t quite describe until you’ve tried it.
Healing in community means that you’re capacity to grow your awareness and understanding of cancer’s impact becomes more efficient, because when we listen to other’s stories, when we see them told visually, we find our own hidden acorns of our experience that we’d tucked away in order to survive. When those acorns are unearthed, the part of our body, mind, spirit or self that’s been holding onto them can relax. When we tell those stories and see how our community responds and relates to what we’ve gone through, our internal protection system eases because we feel seen and validated. When we feel validated by ourselves and others, it becomes easier to described to our loved ones and our treatment teams what’s happened to us and what we need at this time.
The beautiful thing is, when you heal in community, not only do you have the opportunity to grieve your losses, you have the opportunity to celebrate your successes. You have the space to laugh, to cry, to speak your truth and have it received. You have the freedom to put down the mask you were wearing for protection and be seen for the unique beauty that you are. To be loved and adored just as you are, for who you are. And that, my friends, is living!
So I’ve created this community, and it feels like I’ve arrived to what I’ve been looking for ever since I started picking up the pieces of my own cancer experience. The community is open to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, at any stage (0-4), at any point in the treatment process.
If you’re seeking to heal emotionally from breast cancer and live your best life despite it all, I’d love to have you check it out! To celebrate the new year of 2022, I’m running a deal- you get 30 days free. Thereafter, the membership is $30/month. Here’s the link to learn more about this structured community: Art Therapy for Breast Cancer Community on Mighty Network.
From my heart to yours… Stephanie
-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 emotionally healing cancer. Stephanie works with people online and in person, offering individual and group cancer coaching and art. Her #TherapyThursday blogs offer guidance for healing the body, mind, spirit and self after cancer. Sign up today so you’ll never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.