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.

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.

Healing Self 0 comments on The art of toe dipping

The art of toe dipping

Did you feel the thrill of jumping right into the water when you were a kid? Of completely immersing yourself and playing underwater games, like having a tea party? The exuberance of being weightless as you splashed around? The freedom of trusting innately in your environment and the freedom of being so warm as a young person.

As an adult, are you less likely to just jump in without some form of preparation? Are you more wary of how the environment might impact you- the shock of the cold, the need to be mindful of others- especially if you are the adult responsible for children? Do you ease yourself in to respect the fact that your body needs time to adjust?

Or perhaps you avoid going in at all, which in the short run perhaps protects yourself from being cold yet also prevents you from experience the bliss of floating and feeling lighter than when you are on solid ground.

When you have been through something significant, like a cancer diagnosis and treatment, it can be overwhelming to imagine that you can wade through the thoughts and feelings that come along with the experience. You might perceive that the only options are to jump completely in, as you do not see a gentle way of easing in, and hope you can keep your head above water OR to avoid it all together.

It doesn’t help that the culture of the USA tends to have a mindset of all or nothing. Our propensity to live in the extremes, especially when it comes to our health and wellness, often sets us up for failure. And when we are faced with less tangible, less observable and unclear challenges, this dichotomy can become even more extreme.

Emotionally if you can identify a path or a map for healing as a cancer survivor, you can begin to break it down into pieces and parts that need to be addressed. This is why I developed the comprehensive self assessment form for survivorship, which you can access for free by clicking here.

Having a map is important, but in order to begin the journey you need to have the following lined up to support it:

  • a method or process for how you will travel from point A to B and beyond
  • an understanding of the support people you need to have in order to make it- often a blend of providers, family, friends and other cancer survivors that can get you the provisions you need (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc)
  • a compass that can help you find your way when you realize that your map did not have all destinations listed
  • provisions that will allow you to refuel yourself to support your resiliency
  • self awareness to support the undertaking- recognizing when you are ready to move and when you are needing to stop and rest
  • realistic expectations of how long it will take you

Learning to dip your toe into the emotional waters that surround cancer involves being patient, compassionate and understanding of yourself and your boundaries of when you are starting to feel overwhelmed. This is why using art can be such a powerful METHOD of traveling from point A to B, as the art happens through developing a deep connection to yourself and your experience. Check out what I wrote on the How art Helps page for more details on why.

I’m curious- if you were to imagine dipping your toe into the emotional waters that surround your cancer experience- where do you think you would begin? Feel free to share below or write me a private message!

-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 Sending love to the highly conscientious

Sending love to the highly conscientious

Have you ever felt guilty for being negative and perhaps feared you caused something to happen?

Are you the sort of person who often feels responsible for when something has gone wrong- yet often do not hold others accountable the way you do yourself?

Do you spend time ruminating about how to fix situations or do you find it hard to accept reasonable feedback from others because you feel ashamed that they needed to even give you feedback in the first place?

If so, it may be that you are someone who takes being conscientious and accountable to a level that goes from being healthy to harmful. This can happen for a number of reasons, a common one is being a parentified child. In essence, a parentified child is someone who was raised in a manner that they felt responsible for meeting their own needs, and likely the needs of the parents and family, rather than having faith that a parent was available to fill that roll.

When you are a parentified child, you are meeting needs and responsibilities that are beyond your capabilities, and when the parent fails to recognize this- the message that often becomes internalized is “I am not good enough”. This painful message drives you to try an adapt to the situation, to try and overcome the impossible, which often is not successful and creates a deep sense of failure and insecurity.

Imagine the impact of being diagnosed with cancer on someone who is a parentified child. The challenges of trying to accept what has happened, the challenges of moving forward staring the deep stress of the unknown and uncertainty that cancer brings, the challenges of confronting that even with your best efforts you are not in complete control of your destiny.

I’ve been there. I remember my initial sense of relief that I tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation… because I felt like that let me off the hook for being “responsible” for getting cancer. That is how pervasive the needs can be of a parentified child- because sadly, while this might have bought me “grace” from being the one who failed to be good enough to avoid cancer- it also puts my kids at higher risk of having cancer. I clearly do not want that for them or their offspring and so this response raised my awareness of how I had emotional healing to do related to being a parentified child (yet again!).

This awareness is an example of how deeply impacted your psyche is by the experience of having cancer. It truly touches upon every aspect of your life, especially the areas in which you continue to carry wounds.

It’s a reminder that being tender and compassionate with yourself is an important part of healing emotionally from cancer, because some of those old beasties are going to raise their heads- along with all of the tentacles of experiences, memories and self beliefs that beast is attached to.

For better or worse, it is an opportunity to stare those beasts straight in the eye and to question their validity, while sorting through what salve will be needed in order to soothe the wounds that reopened again.

For these are the stories which must be told in order for our souls to be free.

-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 The mountains you never imagined you would climb

The mountains you never imagined you would climb

This week is the 19th anniversary of my mother’s final peak on her Appalachian Trail through hike- 2,100+ miles from Georgia to Maine. Two weeks from now is the 18th anniversary of her death from metastatic breast cancer. Yes, it is true that life can fully upend itself in a New York minute. On or around the first anniversary of finishing her remarkable hike, my mom made the decision to stop active treatment for cancer- it was not working and treatment was seriously impacting any quality of life that she had left.

As you might imagine, it was incredibly painful that her death fell in the month of October, because it is breast cancer awareness month. Until I became a cancer survivor myself, I had no community to share that agony with, nor did I fully appreciate why this is such a tender month for those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The grieving process took a long time to fully heal from, and I recall feeling like every October I was doing that death grip on the cliff that kept me from completely losing myself in the ocean of longing, isolation, and despair. This is one of the dark sides of being a caregiver, as we are often less visible and behind the scenes, supporting our loved ones.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, my treatment started in October, which added a new layer of meaning to the month- as well as a new layer of understanding who my mom was and what she had been through. Especially since I had become a mother myself, with children who were much younger than I was when she was first diagnosed.

The other thing that I did not realize about breast cancer awareness month until I was diagnosed with cancer itself, is that fundraising and research dollars are not spent equitably for metastatic cancer research. The death rate has not changed in the past 20 years- even though 30% of all breast cancer cases are metastatic and disproportionately impact younger women. With the multitudes of fundraising purportedly done during October and in numerous breast cancer walks, triathlons, etc., this was shocking to learn. Organizations like Metavivor are seeking to turn the tide, so if you are looking for somewhere to give that directly impacts metastatic breast cancer research- check them out.

In beginning this work with Creative Transformations, I think about the importance of creating community- for it is isolation that creates a significant amount of pain. Recently I have begun a private FB group- Creating Connections with Creative Transformations:

A membership community of cancer survivors (active treatment/not), previvors, and caregivers, who are actively using the tools and guidance of Creative Transformations, LLC. A sacred space to share your art-as-therapy creations, to receive and give support, to enhance your connection with those who GET IT- in a caring, compassionate, and genuine way.

Would you like to join us, especially during this month of Pinktober? If so, click here to request to join. Caregivers are more than welcome to join in as well!

For my community of motherless daughters who are also survivors & previvors, I see you… in all of the mixed up, layered emotions that this combo can bring.

-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 Deep in the messiness…

Deep in the messiness…

Hello again! I can’t believe that it has been a month since I last wrote a #TherapyThursday blog. I have been deep in the messiness of transition and growth this September, which I totally underestimated… most likely a blessing (ie to be a bit naive about what was about to happen) but one that had me coming to terms with needing to be in the flow of all the messiness that change can bring.

I saw this phrase as in response to someone who bravely voiced her vulnerability about how others seem to be managing cancer treatment ending better than she was. I thought ‘Oh how the tentacles of self judgment, shame and guilt can seep into our psyche!’

As Nietzsche said:

When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.

Comparison leads us to distorted places.

Deep in the messiness- when you have been told “you have cancer” it is abundantly clear that life is much messier and unpredictable than you tend to accept when you are moving through the repetitiveness of daily life. This reality is thrust forcibly into your face- and the ripple effect trails into every sector of your life.

Yet as humans, we deeply yearn for the safety and security that homeostasis- or equilibrium- that predictability brings. Anyone coping with cancer, or life after cancer treatment ends, seeks the safety of a lifeboat that offers protection from the constant storm which brews in your body, mind, spirit and self.

However, cancer and post treatment pose a tremendous challenge to this deep need, because in order to find a sense of protection, safety and predictability, you need to accept the antithesis of these deep needs insecurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Conditions which drive us to those ideas we conquered long ago.

You may wish for swift resolution; still, moving swiftly towards resolution typically involves some form of suppression. This was why I had such deep appreciation for the post described above- because by sharing this moment of authenticity and bravery with her community- the community replied to honor and hold her when it was needed most.

When you are at the point when life seems to be profoundly messy, profoundly steeped in emotional energy- sometimes what you need the most is a lifeline that you can grasp onto while you feel immersed. If you are someone who is at the point of ending cancer treatment and you are feeling overwhelmed by what to do next- I recommend signing up for the free survivorship self assessment form I offer on my website. The week of October 8th, I will be offering a 5 day virtual week to support you through the completion of that assessment, a week that seeks to support and build a community amongst survivors. Learn more by clicking this link!

-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, the self assessment tool, and virtual workshops.  Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.