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.

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.

 

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.

Healing Self, Survivorship 0 comments on How resistance ups the pain point with Scanxiety

How resistance ups the pain point with Scanxiety

Last week I wrote about scanxiety, and from the numbers related to how many people read it, this topic was a popular one. I think in part that it is popular not only because scanxiety creates a lot of distress for cancer survivors, but also because it is undeniably related to having cancer.

There are so many subtle ways that you are impacted by cancer, that often you might question or doubt your own intuition when those subtle disturbances bother you. One tool I can offer to begin to uncover these subtle and not so subtle disturbances is the free survivorship assessment tool, available here.

I have yet to meet a cancer survivor who was confused about the relationship with scanxiety.

This week I wanted to explore how resistance contributes to the intensity of scanxiety. It is so normal that when we have experienced something scary, painful, life altering, that reminders of what happened to us are unwelcome. It is a natural urge for you to want to avoid, deny, distract from that reminder, especially because it brings up your unfinished business with what has happened.

While you might get temporary relief from resisting the unfinished business that scanxiety stirs, in the long run if you don’t find a way to come into awareness and acceptance that it exists, it is going to reinforce the potency of your reaction. I wrote a blog about how our body, mind and spirit needs to “off-gas”, or in other words- identify, process, and let go, in order to heal from PTSD. I used the metaphor of off-gassing because there is nothing pleasant about it, but sometimes humor lightens the load. You can read that blog by clicking here.

Resistance does have a place when you are in survival mode, because it can help you compartmentalize. Like all things in life, it’s knowing when you have crossed the line from useful to potentially harmful.

To successfully navigate the trap of resistance, you need to find the counterpoint to it, which in my mind is bringing in acceptance. To bridge the gap of resistance to acceptance, you need to find ways to lower your defenses while giving yourself lots and lots of support (or asking for and receiving lots and lots of support).

This is not an easy task, which means that you likely need to invite compassion into the party, because if your tendency is to try to judge, critique or control yourself through a deeply emotional moment, it’s not going to work.

I also realize that tackling the mountain by expecting myself to jump to the top of it, is not going to get the results I want. You may have no idea of how you can ease your resistance to the inevitable scanxiety that comes- and that’s OK.

Perhaps you can redirect your reflection to a different moment in your life, in which you moved from resistance to acceptance. Do you remember what you did to support yourself through it? Do you remember how it felt before, during, and after? This is going to be a trial and error period for sure, but I am a big advocate of the belief that everyone has transferable skills- you sometimes need to approach a situation from a completely unexpected angle to get the results you seek.

I would love to hear what ideas you have for sleuthing this dilemma. Feel free to comment below or shoot me an email if that is more of your style.

Until next week!

-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.

Survivorship 0 comments on Scanxiety… it’s more than anxiety… here’s why

Scanxiety… it’s more than anxiety… here’s why

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, then you are likely very familiar with SCANXIETY- the horrifying blend of anxiety and the scans that are used to diagnose, inform treatment decisions, evaluate the effectiveness of treatment, and/or look for cancer recurrence/spreading.

Yet Scanxiety is more than anxiety… it is more than a feeling of unease about the unknown.

If you have had a cancer diagnosis, the potential unknown is specific, not generalized like anxiety is. If you have had a cancer diagnosis, scans are no longer unknown, because they happen quite frequently compared to the general population.

For a cancer survivor, those scans brought tangible evidence that we have/had a life threatening illness- nothing murky to it. When someone is confronted with or witnesses a life threatening experience, they run the risk of developing PTSD. If you wish to understand that more, check out this blog I wrote: PTSD and the Cancer Warrior.

Recently I was talking with a fellow cancer survivor, who is also a mental health expert, about the possibility of doing a virtual workshop on Scanxiety, with the intention of giving attendees tools to help them cope with it. I was sharing my ideas of a potential outline, which always includes an educational discussion to offer a foundation for why I promote specific coping strategies.

As I was talking about my ideas for discussing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which ultimately scanxiety is, this descriptive phrase came out of my mouth:

Scanxiety… it happens because frankly every time you have to go for a scan, it is like returning to the scene of a crime

We both stopped talking, and let that wash over us. That was it, a perfect metaphor for understanding why scanxiety is more than just anxiety… more than something you can ‘control’… it is your re-experiencing, on a very visceral level, the earth shattering moment(s) that lead to everything changing in your life. Just like the turmoil that happens to people when they return to the scene of a crime, it rattles you to the core.

Scanxiety includes replaying in your mind, over and over again, what has happened or what you fear will happen. It’s the complete zapping of physical energy as your body relives the trauma of being diagnosed and holds the tension of what this new scan will find. Scanxiety becomes the black hole that sucks the hope and light out of your life, replacing it with fear. Scanxiety leaves you wondering if you will ever be the same again.

Scanxiety can last for varying amounts of time, and often it will happen in phases. For example, I had a PET scan that should something by my chest wall- a scary place for breast cancer patients. It was not lit up like a Christmas Tree but they decided that a CT Scan was warranted.

In my mind, I stayed relatively focused, because I knew I had not been experiencing pain and I knew that scans can read like false positives. But my body had a very dramatic reaction to it, it was as if someone had sucked out all of my energy. This chain reaction of my body is an excellent example of how potent PTSD triggers are- and it persisted until I heard the “all clear”.

Scanxiety is a very real issue for cancer survivors, and addressing it takes time, persistence, and excellent support. A big piece of addressing scanxiety is allowing your body, mind, spirit and self to explore what you have been through. For most of us, that seems like a daunting task- which is why having some sort of a roadmap is so important- for this roadmap gives you an opportunity to ground yourself even in the midst of things falling apart.

You may wonder where to begin… and my response to you is, Start Where You Are, the FREE survivorship self-assessment tool that I have created. Click on this link, and it will bring you right to it.

-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.

Survivorship 0 comments on What they won’t tell you (but not because they don’t care)

What they won’t tell you (but not because they don’t care)

There were two times that the awesome NP on my oncology team warned me that I might emotionally struggle. The first was just before the third Adriamycin  (aka red devil)/Cytoxan chemotherapy treatment. She mentioned that for many breast cancer survivors this happened to be one of the hardest, not just because the side effects are more intense but also because there is still one left to go of the big guns before the “little” guns of Taxol and Carboplatin (which were not little guns at all for me). I was grateful for the heads up, because it helped to normalize the experience.

The second time she warned me about emotional stress for cancer survivors was closer to the end of the 5 months of chemo, prior to the bilateral mastectomy and radiation. She dropped a hint that many survivors found the transition to post treatment life challenging, noting that many found that seeing their treatment team less created more anxiety. She was supportive and encouraging, wanting me to be prepared and assuring me that I could call my team if I had any symptoms that made me worry the cancer was back.

But with all of the warnings in the world, no one can really prepare you fully for how isolated you can feel, especially if you are not regularly interacting with other cancer survivors. Even if you are interacting with other survivors, it still means that you are likely sitting with a lot and trying to manage it on your own.

The warnings were helpful, but what I really needed were tools to help me figure out some kind of a plan or map for healing. I did a ton of self advocacy to get connected to the providers who could help me, and most of the conversations about my symptoms happened because I started them.

My providers were responsive, but they were not proactive in helping me figure this out.

As I have been developing the services I offer through Creative Transformations, this problem, this lack of assessment from my providers, really kept me provoked. Because I knew that my training and expertise in mental health and trauma gave me a major advantage. Helped me to successfully advocate for myself. Helped me to be self aware. Helped me to know that things can get better if they are addressed.

Yet, no cancer survivor should have to be an expert in order to figure this out, because each one of us has our own unique role on this planet- we do not have to be a jack of all trades simply to be able to THRIVE.

It occured to me that as a gift to my community, I could develop a tool to help you identify how you are doing and what needs to be addressed.  The self assessment tool is now available on the website, along with its natural companion- a low cost, small group, virtual workshop called “Back to Life, Back to Reality: Decoding Cancer Survivorship”. You can check out the tool for free, it is there to help you!

They, your providers, might not be able to tell you what to expect when cancer treatment ends, but that is not because they don’t care. It takes having been there to really get it.

-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.