My first direct experience of breast cancer was at 13, when I visited my aunt and she was in the middle of treatment. At 19, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. But it wasn’t until my mom’s cancer metastasized (I was 25, she’d just turned 50), that I truly began to witness what the illness was, medically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I moved home a few months into my mom’s Stage 4 diagnosis, because it was clear that as a single woman, she shouldn’t be alone. As her daughter, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to focus on building a life for myself when she was fighting for hers. We hoped that treatment would be effective enough to give her more time, and I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on time with her, even if our time was going to be spent in and out of doctor’s appointments.
In the quieter moments, we would talk. Sometimes she would share her thoughts and feelings about what it was like to be facing metastatic cancer, but most often she wanted to focus her time and energy on planting whatever nuggets of wisdom she could to help me out. Her drive to be my mother was strong, and her focus was on who I was and what I needed at that moment.
Which is why in some ways, my experience as a caregiver felt like a preview of breast cancer. A lot of what she was going through I couldn’t fully understand. The best I could do, the best I could offer, was to pay attention to everything that was happening and how it was effecting her. It was my observations, my witnessing, and my trying to imagine myself in her shoes that I used to fill in the gaps of what wasn’t being said directly.
Now that I’ve been through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment myself, I see how words can be very limiting when we’re trying to help someone understand what we’re going through. There’s a powerful recognition that only comes from lived experience, which is why having a community is so important- like the Art Therapy for Breast Cancer Community I facilitate on Mighty Networks.
When you’re confronted with cancer, you need to use what you’ve got to confront it. Each one of us has something inside that keeps us moving forward during difficult times. For me, it was having a preview of the process that helped me navigate forward, despite the many mind blowing moments in which I realized I had been naive, even though I’d shown up for my mom the best that I could (and for what she allowed too).
Losing my mom at 26 was heart breaking, but as I worked towards healing emotionally from cancer, I realized that sharing this lived experience made me feel more connected to her once again. No, she couldn’t support me or my family in the ways she would have if she were still alive, but it was her memory and her example that comforted me when I was overwhelmed.
My mom had been one of my best friends, and breast cancer helped me ease the pain of her loss- as weird as that may sound- because I felt like I knew and understood her even better than before. This was the second way in which having that preview assisted me in confronting cancer and healing emotionally.
The most important way that my preview of breast cancer has impacted my process and who I am today, was the moment my mom revealed casually how she still suffered from fear (in between the two diagnoses). I’ve written about this before, but it was so startling because at the time I had no idea that she was still struggling with anything related to cancer.
During my active treatment process, I didn’t recall that moment. In fact, it laid buried in my consciousness even though I’d started Creative Transformations and was figuring out how to heal myself emotionally. However, this moment clearly played a part in why I felt so driven to heal physically, emotionally, spiritually, and my sense of self. Cancer had done enough damage to me and my life, and I didn’t want to let it have any more power over me if I could help it.
This doesn’t mean that I’m free of PTSD triggers, thoughts, and feelings that bring me to my knees. This means that at each moment, I’m using what I’ve got, which is the art therapy tools I developed for healing and thriving. These tools helped me to tell the story of what I’ve been through, which leaves me more attuned to the present moment and more prepared to face uncertainty.
So tell me- what do you have? I’d love to hear about your super power, we can talk about it 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 emotionally healing cancer. Stephanie works with people online and in person, offering individual & group cancer coaching and art therapy. 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 follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.