We are on a journey. Not to be perfect, but to be whole. -Eileen Anglin

How I Used Process Art to Emotionally Heal From Chemotherapy

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Chemotherapy was the first intervention chosen to treat my breast cancer, given the size of the tumor and the fact that I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC is the catch-all category of breast cancer that is not fed by estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 protein. Scientists are working hard to develop targeted therapies for this type of breast cancer; however, they believe that there are actually multiple forms of breast cancer that fall under it, which makes it more difficult to treat. Therefore, chemotherapy is often recommended first so that the oncologists can see if it is effectively killing the cancer.

To be prepared for chemo, I had a port surgically placed to protect my veins from the 5 months of poison I was going to receive. My port was a blessing because it eased the anxiety and pain from all of the needle sticks, but it terrified me because one of the risks was it could carry an infection straight to my heart. Having to make such enormous medical decisions in the chaos of the diagnosing phase is so representative of the challenges one faces after being told you have a life-threatening condition. TNBC is a very aggressive form of cancer, and mine was locally advanced, so there was no luxury of time for decision-making.

Once treatment had ended, I turned to art to process the experience. I had all of these breast casts that we had done prior to surgery, and on the anniversary of my first chemo treatment (which coincidentally was also my wedding anniversary), I sat down and processed the experience on the cast. Instinctively, I knew what I wanted to do, and as I worked lines of poetry emerged that validated my emotional needs in that moment. It came first in Spanish, and then I translated it for the cast. “Oh Red Devil (nickname for one of my chemos), I am here on my knees, please save my life, because I am not done yet, I have work and purpose still.”

It’s normal to fear that dipping into a painful memory will make it worse, but this rarely is the outcome. In fact, the externalizing of our pain onto paper is tremendously relieving as we are carrying the memory within our body, mind and spirit. Kind of similar to making a shopping list – once you have it on paper you no longer have to worry that you will forget what you need.

Additionally, witnessing your experience in a tangible, visible form is self-validating, which is an important component of healing. Our feelings are messengers – they need an audience that is listening. When we are compassionate and accepting of them, they feel satisfied that their work is done and they fade away. Experiences that are complicated often bring out conflicting feelings and needs, and they may need repeated audiences with us in order to feel heard, especially if we have developed the habit of banishing or repressing them.

When we practice expressing our thoughts and feelings through process art, we can gain a deeper experience of listening to them as well as understanding them because they are no longer running around in circles in our head if we are placing them on paper. I have experienced and witnessed many “a-ha” moments from process art making; in fact, they often come faster and more frequently through art because of the benefit of gaining distance visually from our internal struggle.

After I had completed my chemo cast, I left it alone for several months. An opportunity arose for me to tell my treatment story through art, and I pulled it out to spend some time reflecting about that experience. The words poured easily out of me and I wrote a few poems. Here is one below:

Chemo

The battle to kill the cancer

Feels like a death march of self

Wondering which cells are going to outlast the other

Each week we measure

Making sure the damage is not irreversible

Holding our breaths to see if

The medicine that kills

Is killing effectively.

My body grows more tired with each round

I cling on to whatever normalcy I can muster

My onc must have nerves of steel and deep conviction in the treatment

For to observe this battle, day in and day out

Must be brutal

Come , she says,

This will soon be over

And then you can rest.

This post originally appeared on Creative Transformations.

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14 Gifts for People Who Have Breast Cancer

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If you know someone who has breast cancer or even is a breast cancer survivor, you might be deciding what would be a good gift to buy them. I complied a list of ideas that I think will hopefully inspire you to find the right gift for your family member or friend. But remember to keep in mind their personality before everything else as you pick their gift.

1. Comfy clothes are a great idea for someone recovering or undergoing breast cancer treatment. Big hoodies and flannel button-down fashionable pajamas are welcome. Fuzzy warm socks are also great.

2. Moisturizers are a good gift idea because treatments can leave skin dry and itchy. Having a good moisturizer can make all the difference in the world.

3. A kindle is an excellent present for someone undergoing treatment or recovering. Reading is a great distraction from upcoming appointments, procedures and tests. Kindles are also small enough to fit in a purse or bag to transport.

4. Word search books, crossword puzzles or any games that can be used for fun and as a distraction.

5. Candles and candle holders are welcome.  Nothing like a beautiful smelling candle to have in your room when you are trying to relax and heal.

6. Gift cards to grocery stores or any store for that matter just to help take some financial burden off the family. Cancer isn’t only miserable but also terribly expensive so any help is appreciated. Speaking of gift cards, gift cards to clothing stores are excellent because clothing doesn’t always fit or feel the same as it did prior a mastectomy or double mastectomy.

7. Home made gift certificates offering your assistance in services such as cleaning the house, cooking, gardening, help with child care, help with pet care, running errands and such will be a welcome help. No one likes asking for help so having these home made offers relieves stress.

8. Heating pads and blankets are appreciated especially as we approach the winter months. When I recovered, I relaxed on a recliner, and wrapping in a blanket helped me feel even more comfortable.

9. Inspirational breast cancer awareness ornaments, cups, shirts, earrings and just about anything is good for a breast cancer survivor. As I was going through cancer treatments, I didn’t appreciate the pink ribbon as I do now. Now when I look at breast cancer awareness merchandise, I don’t get a pit in my stomach. I look at it and actually smile that I had cancer, went through it and am still here.

10. iTunes gift cards and anything with music can help the survivor or the person going through breast cancer. Music carried me through just about all the seasons of cancer. Songs helped me through finding out, biopsies, lumpectomy to mastectomy. When I hear certain songs, I have a memory attached to the song. I will always carry these memories with strength.

11. A day at the spa to get a massage, nails done and whatever else to make them feel wonderful makes a terrific gift.

12. For women and men dealing with cancer, adventures and helping them do things that they have never done before. A chance to drive a sports car, amusement parks, the beach and whatever they wish to experience is so important.

13. Movie gift cards are fun and a well-needed distraction.

14. Hugs and visitors from family and friends are unmeasurable. Knowing you are not alone and people have your back can lift your spirits and hope.

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Thinkstock photo by joingate

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8 Lessons I've Learned About Love While Supporting My Grandmother Through Breast Cancer

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“Your grandma is headed to the ER. The doctor called and told her she needs emergency spine surgery,” my mom told me.

The next day, my grandma had fast-growing masses removed from her spine, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time. In addition, a rod was surgically added to her back as the cancer cells had been eating her spine — and once the masses were out, she would need that extra support. Once her surgery was complete, her doctors told us that because of the location of the masses, had she come in a day or two later, she could have been paralyzed. Since her surgery, she’s been in and out of the hospital three times, and radiation was put on hold.

… And this all started a month ago.

Thinking about the last 31 days, I can’t help but think about my family’s current journey — both the moments of fear and the beautiful moments. As I think about these beautiful moments, I can’t help but see and feel love.

Here are eight lessons I’ve learned about love on our journey. While I already knew many of these things listed, they’ve been highlighted again and again throughout the last few weeks.

1. Love is patient.

There’s so much patience that comes with love. With my grandma’s illness and surgeries, love meant taking one day at a time, one moment at a time. It’s about rearranging furniture in the house so it’s easier for my grandma to get around. It’s about creating a schedule for family members to rotate during the nights she was in the hospital.

2. Love is kind.

So much kindness has been shown to my family since this journey began. People have gone to visit my grandmother at the hospital and at her home. They’ve made meal after meal and have even helped with some house duties when needed. We’ve even received messages from people around the world, just to let us know they were praying for my grandma and our family. Kindness hasn’t been shy.

3. Love is more than skin deep.

It may be cliché to say, but I believe beauty is ever-changing, as are our bodies. Love is loving your spouse when you meet them — and when weight is added after her child-rearing years. Love is loving your spouse when she ages and permanent creases are added from laughter to her once-smooth skin. Love is loving your spouse when cancer takes over and scars are added from life-saving surgeries and permanent reminders of time spent in radiation are tattooed onto her skin.

4. Love is laughter.

In the midst of the struggle, there have been many moments of laughter in the mix. My family members are naturals at finding the light in the darkness, laughter being one way. During my grandmother’s six-hour surgery, I may have offered to teach my 75-year-old grandpa to “whip” and “nae nae” in the waiting room… And he may have accepted the offer.

5. Love is thinking of others.

The day after my grandma’s major spine surgery, she was on a ton of medications, and she was on a mission: to find me a husband. The poor men who entered the room had no chance. As they walked into her room, she would say, “My granddaughter, Crystal, was on the front page of the Fresno Bee yesterday. Are you married? She’s looking for a husband.” (Teamwork makes the dream work? Ha!)

6. Love is creative.

A few weeks after my grandma’s surgery, many of my family members left town. She seemed to be in the clear and out of danger, and my grandparents insisted we go on our previously scheduled trips. One aunt went to a work event, the rest of us headed to my grandpa’s family reunion in Florida. Yet halfway into our drive to Florida (from California), my mother received a call. Grandma was put back into the hospital. We hated to not be home while she was hospitalized, but they insisted we continue on. It was important to them that we were at the reunion when they couldn’t be. And during the reunion? The most precious thing took place. All of my grandpa’s eight siblings sat together and brought them to the reunion via FaceTime. Everyone was crying by the end of the call, but hospital or not — grandma and grandpa were going to be at the reunion. (Mom and I also brought 36 pounds of frozen boiled peanuts home so they could also enjoy one of their favorite southern foods.)

7. Love can be scary.

Loving another human being can be terrifying — regardless if they’re a family member or friend. Loving them means you care about them, and when the hardships come? When cancer diagnoses are made and emergency surgeries are unexpectedly added to your calendar — it can be scary, and you can’t imagine life without those special people in your life.

8. Love is worth it.

As scary as loving another human can be, it is so worth it. Love means you’re never alone, that someone is there for you in both the good times and the bad. Love means you have others on your team, rooting for you through all the moments that come your way. It means having a grandma who wants you to find a loving spouse when you’re single, because she wants you to experience the kind of love and joy she’s had for nearly 57 years of her life. It’s having people you can call or text at midnight when you are on the brink of tears, knowing they’re there for you regardless. Loving other people can create memories, happiness, and an extra special adventure. Love is scary… But it is so worth it, and life would be lonely without it.

Image via Thinkstock.

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The Small Victories I'm Celebrating After Surviving Breast Cancer

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Recently, I’ve realized that my hair is long enough to start clogging the drain in my shower again. Rather than feeling a slight repulsion about the clump of hair, it makes me smile every time I step into the shower. Intellectually, I knew that having my hair again would make me happy, but the physical joy I feel when I experience it is truly pleasurable. Here are a few other small (and large) victories I have felt fully with my body, mind and spirit:

  • Walking through the grocery store and realizing I no longer had to cling tightly to the handle of the cart for support
  • The incredible sensation of literally feeling your cells come back to life — kind of like having billions of tiny balloons re-inflate themselves inside of your skin
  • Being able to breath deeply again, without pain or wheeziness
  • Hearing my son’s authentic joy at seeing me in my workout clothes again — “Mama, you look so beautiful!”
  • Having enough energy to be out and about on adventures with my family, and not having to rest for the remainder of the day
  • Watching the transformation to my eyes as the eyelashes began to grow in again

The list could go on and on.

I find it important to internally identify and note these changes, because they help me to have a deep appreciation for my health and my body, as well as assisting me in cultivating a deep compassion for what my loved ones and I went through.

I did practice this exercise this during treatment as well, because often my anticipation of how I would feel was much worse than what I actually felt.

I see this as a vital part of reclaiming myself, of emotional healing, and as a counterpoint to when I feel those feelings of frustration about the losses we have experienced. It’s about having a healthy balance of the two, our celebrations and our sorrows, to walk in this world as a resilient person.

I’d love to hear about your small victories. Feel free to share them below.  Let’s inspire one another.

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The Power in Just 'Being'

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I remember that day like it was yesterday. The last day I ever saw my grandmother.

I stood at the sliding, wooden door that separated her kitchen from the stairs that led to the side door of the house. My grandmother sat, frail, skinny, hunched over in her chair in the kitchen. She looked so sad. She looked lonely.

I was afraid.

I was 15 at the time. It was the beginning of the year, early February and the VHS tapes (yes, VHS tapes) had just been released of my Christmas dance recital. It was a cold, snowy day in Michigan. My mom and I were at my grandmother’s house to help clean up, sort bills and take care of her. I remember it like it was yesterday.

My grandmother was sick but not a normal everyday cold kind of sick. This was different. This wasn’t the woman I had always known. For my entire life, my grandmother was nothing short of a superhero. She was a sweet and gentle as Mother Teresa, as wise as Solomon and as fierce as a lion. She was Grandmother. She was my world.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t want me or any of her other grandchildren to know. She wanted to be strong. She wanted to beat it. After she beat the breast cancer, colon cancer came next. I never knew my grandmother had cancer until after she passed away. I suppose she wanted it that way because I would’ve had a hard time letting go of her. I would have wanted to save her.

I remember the last time I saw her so well because of what happened that day. As my mom was helping feed and take my grandmother to the bathroom, I sat in the living room watching TV. My grandmother called to me and asked if I was ready to watch my Christmas dance recital video. We had talked about it for months now, and they had finally handed out the videos at school. I was so excited for her to see it since she had missed my recital.

Yet, when the time came for us to watch the video together, of me in all my ballet and modern dance glory, I said no. I don’t know why exactly, if it was the teenage angst in me not wanting to do what I was told. Perhaps, I was just too restless from being in my grandmother’s house all day cleaning. I was ready to go. I left the tape, and I think I told my grandmother we could watch it later.

The last time I saw her was when I slid that wooden door to her kitchen and walked out into the cold, Michigan air. I regret that moment so much. How I wish I could go back and just be. I’d go back and watch that silly dance recital video with my grandmother. I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to go. I would’ve sat next to my grandmother, rested my head on her lap and laughed at the silly costumes we had to wear. I would’ve told her the parts of the choreography I struggled with. I would’ve pointed out the parts where I messed up, but no one could tell.

I would’ve stayed with her. I would’ve held her hand. I would’ve told her how much I loved her. I have would just been.

I got another lesson on “just being” that same year when my closest friend came into the girls’ locker room to find me. I was changing for dance class, and she came in the room trying her best to hold back tears. She told me her cancer had come back. She was afraid, and she came to tell me. Out of all her friends, she came and found me.

I don’t know what level of profundity a 15-year-old girl is expected to have, but again, I didn’t know what to do. It reminded me of my grandmother, when she was sick and frail. I was afraid. So I just hugged my friend. We stood there, her crying and me holding her in the girls’ locker room.

We stood. We cried. We embraced. Her mom stood watching us, and she let us just be. I wouldn’t change that moment for the world. Two years later, in our senior year of high school, my friend passed away. I still hold that memory of us in the locker room tight.

We don’t always have the most eloquent or beautiful words. We don’t have the right words or answers, no matter how much we want to. Sometimes, it is just a matter of being. Just being there through the hurt, the scary diagnoses and the uncertainty. There is so much power, so much unknown healing, in just sitting with someone in all of life’s hurt and confusion and just being.

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The Mixed Emotions I Had When My Breast Cancer Diagnosis Came After My Mom’s

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My mom was a beautiful soul. She had vibrant green eyes and a warm, caring nature. She was also tough as nails. She raised us with a good moral code, with a particular focus on conservation. “Waste not” was important to her — we never ran the dishwasher until every nick and cranny was filled in an organized fashion, and though recycling came after we were gone from the house, we had the most organized trash. Nothing went into it until it was compressed by hand to the smallest size.

She became my best friend as I became a young adult. While we had our conflicts, I always looked forward to our daily chats on the phone. When I was 10 and my brother was 8, she divorced my father and returned to college to get her bachelor’s and eventually her master’s degree in social work. At the age of 40, she went on a trip that really influenced her final full decade of life. During that trip, she recalled her childhood dream of walking the entire Appalachian Trail, from start to finish, and spent nine years meticulously researching and planning for the journey. At 43, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same age her older sister had been diagnosed. She went through treatment and healed her body. Six months before turning 50, she began the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Ten days before her birthday, she finished the trail, the final assent up Mount Katahdin, in the company of her siblings, my husband and myself. It was a beautiful day filled with joy and celebration.

Six weeks after she finished the trail, my mom called me to talk. At the time I was living in Boston and she was in Maine. She shared the most unexpected news. Her cancer returned, and it was everywhere — her bones, liver and lungs. This amazing person, who had just walked 1,200 miles with her “home” on her back, had actually developed full-blown metastasis on the trail. She said, “Well, everyone was talking about how they were in pain, so I just assumed that mine was no different.” It was the first time in her life that she did not have any specific goals in mind, beyond wanting to beat cancer again. I recall this conversation with her as we lay next to one another, disbelieving that this could be the end of her “story.” It was early on in the treatment phase, and while we hoped for the best, a part of me knew somehow this was the beginning of the end.

My brother, my husband and I came home shortly after her diagnosis to help care for her, along with our family and her numerous friends. She was gone less than a year later, dying five days after she turned 51 and just two weeks after the first anniversary of finishing the Appalachian Trail. Over 300 people came to her wake — her family, friends, families from “the old neighborhood” and the extended community. It took several years to really process the loss of my mom, to adjust to the fact that I could no longer pick up the phone and talk to her. I was 26 years old when she died.

I continued on with my life, training to be an art therapist, giving birth and raising my two sons, and so forth. Yet in the back of my mind, I always pondered whether or not I would get cancer. I didn’t feel tormented with anxiety about it for the most part, but naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder. I watched my older female cousins reach and surpass the age of 43 without getting diagnosed, which gave me hope that this would be the same for me.

Then, in the summer after I turned 40, I had a dream that I had breast cancer. The next morning, I did a self-exam and found a lump. At the time, I had a high deductible insurance plan I knew would change in the fall, so I scheduled an appointment for the future and quit coffee to see whether or not the lump was possibly a caffeine cyst. Unfortunately, it grew in the weeks that followed, becoming visible to the eye when I looked in the mirror. The day my youngest son started kindergarten, I went to the doctor, who ordered a mammogram for the following day. The mammogram turned into a ultrasound, which turned into a biopsy. While I was shell-shocked, I was deeply appreciative that we were not “wasting time” figuring it out. My mom would have approved.

September 9, 2014, my breast surgeon left me a voicemail saying I could call her on her cell, no matter what time it was, so she could give me the results of the biopsy. I had triple negative breast cancer. The sample had been saturated with cancer.

It was scary. I was in a state of disbelief. I was angry. I had hoped to be able to really focus on my career now that my kids were both in elementary school. Yet there were other plans in store for me. The cancer had spread and they found a potential issue in my hip, but ultimately decided it had not metastasized. And while I was experiencing all of these mixed emotions, I was deeply surprised because I was also feeling a deep sense of peace. The question of whether or not I would get cancer, the one I had asked since the age of 19 (my mom’s first diagnosis), had finally been answered. Feeling peaceful was completely unexpected, but I was grateful for it, because it helped me maintain some sense of being grounded — which fueled my resiliency to take on this challenge.

It can be difficult to accept the range of our thoughts and feelings when we are confronted with a life-altering experience. We often feel like we “should” have certain reactions to life’s complications, and thus unanticipated responses can throw us for a loop. Yet, in order to heal, I believe it is important to create space inside for them all to coexist. For a tapestry is always made more beautiful by the diversity of its interwoven colors and patterns.

You may be struggling with accepting the many emotions a diagnosis can bring, not to mention the challenge of experiencing your loved ones’ reactions to the news. It’s fairly common that cancer patients feel like they need to be strong out of fear of burdening their family with their feelings. Yet if we remain quiet, we miss important opportunities to feel emotionally connected, which is central for keeping yourself afloat.

Imagine we were sitting together, discussing how to manage the chaos of the diagnosing phase. My advice to you would be to become an observer of your thoughts and feelings, to welcome them rather than critique them. There is no right or wrong way to handle the words, “You have cancer.” The more accepting we can be of ourselves and our feelings, the more resilient we can be in addressing them.

As Jon Kabat Zinn wisely reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

Follow this journey on Creative Transformations.

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