Stories From Wildfire: Radical Acceptance
September 2014, just days after my youngest son started kindergarten, I received a message that no one wants to hear. A voicemail from the breast surgeon asking me to call her as soon as possible, independent of the time, to discuss the pathology results. My stomach dropped, and I returned to the task at hand, putting my 7 and 5 year old sons to bed, wanting to hold on to as much normalcy as I could muster. Holding onto the final moments of unknowing. Especially because the question of whether or not I would have cancer had lingered in my psyche since I was 19… because both my mom and her sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 42 years old. 30 years later, my aunt is alive, whereas my mom’s cancer metastasized 6 years after her initial diagnosis, when I was 25. She died less than a year later.
Being my mom’s caregiver and watching her do everything she could to stay alive profoundly altered the course of my life. It lead me to become an art therapist, because I intimately saw the deep impact all forms of grief can have on our life, our perspective, our decisions. And I needed to find a way to heal myself too because, when I lost my mom, I lost my sense of self. Your 20s are difficult enough to navigate without the whiplash of cancer and all of its unintended consequences.
We are all driven to learn from life, and so the one promise I always made to myself was that if I got cancer, I would have a bilateral mastectomy. I made this promise, because it was the one choice my mom did not make. While it may not have ultimately saved her life, I knew I needed to do that which she could not do. My mom could not face the dismantling of her femininity through losing her breasts, and since her sister had remained cancer-free, she likely felt that it was safe enough for her to follow in her footsteps.
With my diagnosis of Stage IIIa triple negative breast cancer and the discovery that I did indeed have the BRCA2 genetic mutation, the doctors did recommend a bilateral mastectomy following neoadjuvant chemotherapy. I recall feeling so relieved, because while I had long promised to have a BMX to myself, I still felt conflicted because the research shows that mastectomies and lumpectomies are generally equally as effective.
As we do when our lives are on the line, I plunged into the 5 months of chemo, mastectomy, and radiation with 1 goal in mind: to do whatever I could to change the outcome this time. To do whatever I could do to live past the age of 51. To do whatever I could do to raise my children, and bear witness to their unfolding. When life is on the line, we sign up for every option that makes sense to us, independent of the short and long term consequences. Because, of course, getting to the point of having the luxury to have consequences means that you still have skin in the game. And after all, the consequences of not treating cancer are quite clear.
I am deeply grateful that the interventions were successful, and I have been NED since March 2015. Although when I heard the path results from the BMX, they did find stage 0 DCIS in the other “non-cancerous” breast. Likely chemo resistant, which was why it did not die. My doctors tried to reassure me that all was well, but all that kept running through my mind was, “My body betrayed me again,” and I was devastated.
Active treatment wrapped up, and as I was pulling together the tatters of my life, I began to reflect upon the impact this experience had on my body, mind, spirit, and self. I began to reflect upon the conversations with my mom about how cancer had impacted her. Slowly I began to realize that I wanted to draw from my expertise as an art therapist and my personal experience with cancer to serve my community. This led me to begin Creative Transformations, my platform through which I offer writing and services to help others heal emotionally from cancer.
As I turned my attention towards healing my body and my sense of self, I knew that I had to confront the radical changes to my breasts. As Cormac McCarthy said “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” Having cancer is so surreal, yet every time we look in the mirror, we see evidence of our reality. It took me a long time to be able to look at myself in the mirror, to witness the changes, to wonder who I was now.
As an art therapist, I know that the healing process involves being able to unpack the story, to bear witness to all of the thoughts, feelings and experiences that we have been through. To find a way to tap into that which we have repressed. I love art because it offers a gentle entry point into our suffering, allowing us to become curious about how we feel, allowing us to translate our inner world onto paper, giving us a sense of relief and release. And while most of us experience some form of performance anxiety when it comes to using art to heal, it is something we are all capable of doing with the right guidance and an open mind.
Prior to the mastectomy, I had done several breast casts from Plaster of Paris, and they became the canvas on which I processed my experience. From this experience, the poem you read opposite simply flowed. It was a significant step towards radical acceptance of my body and myself.
The collateral damage of cancer is quite profound because cancer is not just a medical problem and, to treat it, our whole body is impacted by the interventions. Removing our breasts is a very visceral reminder of it. As I developed Creative Transformations, I created a series of workshops that will soon be offered as webinars. One of the workshops is “Radical Acceptance of Self and Body,” based upon my own experience of working through the loss of my breasts, the implications it has had on my femininity and sexuality, my desire to heal my body image and feel whole again. As I developed the workshop, which is based upon the tools of radical acceptance and art as healing, I began to apply the techniques to myself.
By grieving the loss of my breasts, I began to feel less tension in my body. I began to be able to look at myself in the mirror, at my chest that no longer had nipples, that held these plastic orbs instead of my soft, squishy breasts. Eventually I began to dream at night, and in the dream I had had the mastectomy. To me, that was a sign of healing, because my brain had been sufficiently reprogrammed to see myself exactly as I am.
The process of radically accepting ourselves and our bodies is a task that will never fully finish, because we will always have experiences that challenge our sense of security and safety in our lives. Yet we can make progress towards building the acceptance and resiliency we need in order to look up and love ourselves, a moment at a time.
For more stories republished from Wildfire Magazine, click here.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez. Art therapist. Diagnosed at 40. Stage IIIa, Triple Negative. Mom to 2 amazing boys, who were 5 and 7 when I was diagnosed. Caregiver to my mom, who died from metastatic breast cancer when I was 26. I live in Portland, Maine, with my husband, kids and our 2 sweet cats. I blend my professional expertise as an art therapist with my personal cancer experience to be a road warrior for reclaiming our lives and living as fully as we can for as long as we can. Writer of the #TherapyThursday blog.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the 2018 “Body” issue (Vol 3, No 3, Copyright (c) April 2018 by Wildfire Community LLC). More information available at wildfirecommunity.org
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