Survivorship 0 comments on Mapping out your emotional recovery from cancer

Mapping out your emotional recovery from cancer

Next week, if you live in southern Maine, you have the opportunity to attend a free workshop that I’m giving on mapping out your emotional recovery. It’s open to cancer survivors, in treatment or out of treatment, and their caregivers who want to explore emotional health and wellness. We’ll talk broadly about what the emotional reality of cancer looks like and spotlight sexuality as a destination that often needs TLC when cancer strikes. Register here, you do not need to be involved with New England Cancer Specialist to attend.

However, since not everyone will be able to attend, this week I’d like to share with you why mapping out your emotional recovery from cancer makes sense.

First of all, let’s consider what it is like to be in active treatment:

  • You have a clearly identified problem and diagnostics that can give concrete information about the problem, how effective the treatment is in treating it, and the physical impact on your body
  • Your surrounded by the support of your treatment team and loved ones
  • There are specific contingency plans to manage the challenges that active treatment brings
  • It’s anxiety provoking, yet your focused on a specific goal, to destroy the cancer.

However, the norm is that emotional health and wellness are often less attended to, because the crisis of cancer leaves very little room for anything else. When you’re available to start contemplating your mental health, you may find that there is little guidance or support. When cancer treatment is ending, the deep scars of cancer become undeniable and leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable.

Mapping out your emotional recovery helps provide structure similar to active cancer treatment. It empowers you to feel like you can find your way.

Emotional health and wellness is not as measurable as cancer diagnosing and treatment. Healing requires the ability to sit with a lot of uncertainty, while working towards processing and accepting what has happened to you. And then of course the ability to sit with fears about cancer recurrence or worsening, if you are Stage 4.

As an art therapist, I find the use of metaphor to be grounding and inspirational, especially during uncertain times. Metaphors can work to build in structure to the unknown, to give you a point of focus while remaining open to the unanticipated bumps in the road.

Here are the building blocks for mapping out your emotional recovery from cancer:

  • Destination lists (ie the concerns you have, what you’d like to: heal, improve, reclaim, nurture)
  • The places you’d like to visit (ie the “low hanging fruit goals”/smallest steps to take now, and the stretch goals or desires)
  • Supplies- what do you need to get there?
    • Information
    • Team
    • Inspiration
    • Support

I’d love to hear about your map- what destinations do you have on yours? Let’s 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 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.

Healing via Creativity 0 comments on Creativity and CHEMO

Creativity and CHEMO

The first time you walk into the treatment room is a poignant moment. You’re crossing the barrier between the life as you knew it and entering into a world that people fear. You’re scared, uncertain of what is going to happen and how you’re going to survive it. Yet you’re also compelled to take this next step, knowing that it’s important for getting the chance to live longer.

You walk into an universe that is filled with people who are a lot like you. They’re sitting down, hooking up, and hoping for the best. Most are with loved ones, some are alone. Some are newbies, like you, others are veterans. Some will be there for hours, others are fortunate to have less “bags” on the docket.

The nurses attend to you with care. I wonder what it is like for them, to hook people up to their medicine, knowing that the chemo will wreak havoc with their bodies and minds. Knowing that this treatment will not save everyone, yet taking the time to connect and treat each person with care. Nurses are an important lifeline to the chemo patient, as they are the “on the ground” practical wizards who know how to help you try and manage the impact while responding quickly to when things go afoul.

As a young person with cancer, many of the faces didn’t match my own. Here and there I did see a peer, and I always reached out to them energetically, even though frequently I didn’t speak with them. Chemo often is an internal process of trying to tune out everything that is not necessary (which is often propelled by Benadryl and Ativan depending on what your regimen is!).

Chemo was my first intervention. I am thankful that my eagerness to be “doing something” about my cancer helped me to push through the trepidation I felt. As an art therapist, I leaned on what I knew, bringing with me my traveling art journal and supplies. My first drawing (see below) explored the duality of my feelings. I was terrified, curious, and yet also feeling very held. I was deeply grateful.

What I could not have anticipated, was that this drawing would be very comforting to my kids. When I showed it to them the following day, explaining to them what it was, they immediately sat down and attempted to copy it. Especially my youngest child, who would draw it (or ask me to outline one for him to draw), multiple times over the coming weeks. It changed a painful moment into a shared experience, which I treasure.

Here are some ways you can infuse creativity into your chemo experience:

  • Reflective drawing, similar to what I did which was to translate what was happening inside of me onto paper
  • Creative visualization– one of the ways I coped with having poisonous medicine infused into my veins was to imagine it washing away the cancer while being gentle with my other cells.
  • Structured drawing– like those pre-made adult coloring books that have a picture already established. This can help with performance anxiety.
  • Writing letters to yourself and/or your loved ones- whether it’s capturing the moment or writing words of comfort and hope, trust your instinct here.

Even if you are through with chemotherapy, you will still have emotional leftovers. Creatively processing them can take you to new levels of healing. Unsure of how to do that or where to begin? Let’s talk! Fill out the contact form on my website and we can explore working together.

-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.

Healing Self 0 comments on 5 tips for boosting your resiliency in the face of cancer

5 tips for boosting your resiliency in the face of cancer

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.

Survivorship 0 comments on Looking for a little TLC? Sign up today!

Looking for a little TLC? Sign up today!

How we care for ourselves gives our brain messages that shape our self worth.  -Sam Owen

Cancer is a reminder that life is short. Making time for self care, whatever form that comes in for you personally, needs to be considered more than a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Yet when you have cancer, or when your loved one has cancer, it’s all too easy to cut out self-care or acts of self-nourishment due to the demands of being in survival mode. In the short run, this is an understandable sacrifice, but in the long run the consequences are incredibly high.

Last fall, my friends, Leah and Sarah of Salty Girl Beauty, and I sat down to discuss how we could work together to support cancer survivors and co-survivors in our community. We share mutual passion, personally and professionally, for addressing the important gaps in care around cancer wellness for everyone impacted by cancer, for those who are in active treatment and those who are finished.

We talked about bringing together community partners who support cancer survivors and their caregivers for meaningful conversations and connections. The series, Survivorship and Beyond was conceived, a series that would cover distinctive topics that are important to our community. Nutrition and fitness, beauty and selfcare, mental and sexual health, and holistic wellness for thriving.

Thanks to our collaboration with New England Cancer Specialists, we are able to offer this free programming to survivors and caregivers in Scarborough and Kennebunk, ME. Registration is required, sign up by clicking here. You do not need to be a patient of New England Cancer Specialists to attend.

February, the month of love and romance, is being dedicated to beauty and self care,”Feel like YOU again”. Leah and Sarah will be the guides for the women only sessions and Dr. Fern Weisberg will offer the men only sessions. We’d love your company, and the company of your cancer friends and caregivers. Let’s take this time to love one another up!

Don’t delay your registration, as all of the beauty and self care sessions happen next week, Feb 28th- March 1st. There are a variety of days and times to select from. While you are at it, sign up for my session on mapping out your emotional recovery, happening in March, and the final session in April on thriving. From my heart to yours…

-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.

 

Healing Self 0 comments on It’s OK not to be Zen all the time

It’s OK not to be Zen all the time

As much as I love to feel confident, secure, peaceful, and tranquil, I know that emotional wellness comes from deeply accepting where I am in any given moment. It means acknowledging that I am not always going to feel Zen all of the time, as I need the full spectrum of my feelings to navigate this life. In fact, this recognition allows me to more deeply appreciate the moments when I do.

I came up with this title because as cancer survivors, there’s pressure to be positive and less stressed. It’s an achievement to feel like you’ve done a good job at emotional self care and processed what you’ve gone through. This creates a feeling of release and unburdening that we all seek. It’s delicious to feel calm after going through hell.

The tricky part is, learning to let go of suffering also means that you’ll need to let go of the hypervigilant watchdog. The watchdog that wants to be acutely tuned in so that you’re never caught off guard again. The watchdog promises a false sense of control, which intellectually we know is not foolproof but emotionally we wish to believe. Disconnecting is critical to healing.

So, when you’re caught off guard again, it can create feelings of shame and defeat that you let the watchdog go. You might ask yourself, “how can I be back in this place again?”. You may catch yourself thinking “Oh. I should’ve known this would happen”. You may feel guilty for not being prepared, angry that you let your guard down. You may feel self-critical that for losing that Zen-ness you worked so hard to cultivate.

For better or worse, part of healing emotionally involves accepting that healing is not a linear process. It involves anticipating that you’re going to be caught off guard. It means revisiting parts of your story, over and over again, when they demand your attention. These parts are connected to you in ways you can’t always predict. This acceptance can dramatically decrease shame while refocusing you not on the why but the how.

Your goal really isn’t to set your sights on accomplishing complete healing, because that’s an ever evolving process. Your goal is to have a plan of how you’re going to respond.

This is why I’m an advocate for art therapy, because it becomes a safe holding space for containing what has been stirred, while processing what has already happened. When you have a plan, you’ll be able to stand more securely in the chaos, knowing that you’ve got a way to support yourself.

-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.

Survivorship 0 comments on A mindful leap towards courage

A mindful leap towards courage

As I have written about in previous posts, when you are getting ready to process a major life event, it is important to find your jump off point. The jump off point is some aspect of your experience that is easily accessible, like a gateway into your conscious experience that through art will lead you to the less conscious material that is ready to be released.

I have been working on an art therapy workbook for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The exercise below is in it, to help get people prepared for the sensation of diving in. I’m sharing it today as a sneak peek at what is to come…

Try using this visualization to practice the art of jumping off:

  • Before selecting a image or place to jump off from, think of how you want to feel as your jumping. Do you want to feel excited? Courageous? Playful? Willing? Worthy? A combination of feelings? I recommend thinking about an essence that feels inviting and inclusive.
  • Next, think about the environment you would want to be jumping off in, you might have several that you ultimately practice in your mind. Do you wish to be indoors or outdoors? Do you wish to be jumping into water or something cozy? Are you by yourself or with others? What are you wearing or are you naked? Is there something wild you’d like to try as you jump? Or do you wish to feel deeply safe and secure? What does the air feel like around you? Do you notice any sights, sounds, or smells? Do you wish it to be otherworldly, not recognizable to your daily surroundings?
  • Set aside 5-10 minutes a day to practice visualizing yourself jumping off, taking notice of how you feel about practicing it, seeing if over time if you become more detailed and more comfortable.
  • Finally, as you practice this exercise, see what bubbles up as to what happens next- what do you do and how do you feel about it? This insight will likely support you in understanding your nature and needs moving forward!

I included this visualization exercise in the book because it can be rather intimidating to begin actively processing something like cancer. This exercise is similar to the process of dipping your toe into water, to help acclimate you to the temperature- or in this case, to help acclimate you to taking a leap of faith.

We can build courage for the next step in many different ways. For those of you who try out this visualization, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to comment below or to send me a private email.

-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.