Telling Your Breast Cancer Story With Art Therapy
In this podcast on art therapy, Stephanie explains how people diagnosed with cancer can use it to heal emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Listen to the podcast to hear Stephanie discuss:
her own breast cancer journey and how that influenced her career
the process of art therapy and its benefits
how to find a reputable art therapist
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez is a licensed clinical professional counselor and art therapist with 15 years of clinical expertise in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma. Stephanie also is a breast cancer survivor. She started her company, Creative Transformations, in 2016 to provide information, tools, and services to people diagnosed with cancer to enhance their emotional health and wellness. Her writing has been published in Wildfire, Coping with Cancer, and Breast Cancer Wellness.
— Last updated on May 5, 2022, 6:35 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello! I’m Jamie DePolo, senior editor at Breastcancer.org. Our podcast guest today is Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, a licensed clinical professional counselor and art therapist with 15 years of clinical experience in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma. Stephanie also is a breast cancer survivor. She started her company, Creative Transformations, in 2016 to provide information, tools, and services to people diagnosed with cancer to enhance their emotional health and wellness. Her writing has been published in Wildfire, Coping With Cancer, and Breast Cancer Wellness.
Today, Stephanie joins us to talk about art therapy and how people diagnosed with cancer can use it to heal emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Stephanie, welcome to the podcast!
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Thank you, Jamie. I’m so excited to be here today.
Jamie DePolo: So to start, because our audience is primarily people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer or are caring for someone with breast cancer, could you talk a little bit about your own breast cancer journey? Just tell us briefly about your diagnosis and treatment?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Sure, I’d be happy to do that. I’ve actually been in both the patient role as well as the caregiver. I’ll start with the caregiving role because that was first for me. I have one of those families through which cancer is quite prolific. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 19, and it returned when I was 25. And so when it became metastatic I was one of her primary caregivers, and that really altered the course of my life, I believe. It’s actually what led me to become an art therapist. And in between those two diagnoses — I didn’t necessarily really recall it until after my own diagnosis — but she would speak about the fear that she had about cancer returning, which kind of surprised me because as someone not going through the illness I didn’t realize the emotional toll that it had taken on her.
And so 14 years after she passed away I had a dream that I had breast cancer, and that is actually how I found my lump. It was from there, you know, you do the go see your doctor, go through the mammogram that turns into the ultrasound that turns into a biopsy, so the summer I turned 40 I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. And by the time that it was diagnosed it actually was stage IIIA, so it had traveled into my lymph nodes. And so my treatment progression was to do neoadjuvant chemo first, which I was really grateful for because it was helpful to see how the tumor responded to the treatment. And then I did a bilateral mastectomy followed by radiation, reconstruction, and then an oophorectomy because I do carry the BRCA2 gene mutation.
Jamie DePolo: So you did have genetic testing at some point?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: I did. It had been recommended when I was 30, and I declined at the time. And I’m kind of grateful that I did because I’m not sure that I would have — I was still pretty deep in my grief at that point — and I’m not sure that I would have chosen to become a mom had I known. And while of course I would have loved to have spared my children the experience of me going through cancer, I also, now that I’m enough years out from healing, I also recognize… I’m not disappointed that my mom had me. I don’t begrudge her. So anyway, it’s interesting, I guess, the way your life can unfold.
Jamie DePolo: Oh absolutely. And you talked about your mom’s diagnosis sort of leading you to become an art therapist. Were you already in school to become a therapist when she was diagnosed… not when she was diagnosed, but when she was diagnosed metastatic?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yeah, so I wasn’t. In fact it was kind of funny, because she was the therapist, right, and I was the social worker who was more of an activist mindset. So I never thought that I would necessarily become a therapist, although I do think I have long been concerned about the well-being of others, even from a little child I have early memories of that.
So it wasn’t necessarily my intention. But after she died and the grief was so heavy, and then I actually started working in domestic violence and kind of realized the different ways that grief can pop up in your life that isn’t always death and how grief often can get people stuck and maybe even continue to go back into situations that were dangerous. So I said, “Okay, I really want to find a healthier way to process grief.” So it certainly stimulated me going into art therapy, and then again, as a kid I always illustrated my thoughts, so in many regards I think it was kind of destined to be.
Jamie DePolo: Interesting.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yeah.
Jamie DePolo: So you were a counselor before you started your company, Creative Transformations, correct? In your counseling life/practice, did you always use art as a tool?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: It was always on offer. Even with Creative Transformations, while that is my specialization and that is my niche and my unique offering to people, I’ve always done the work based on my clients’ needs. But I do find that while some of my clients, my non-cancer clients, some of them are more interested than others. But a lot of my cancer clients actually are very interested in it and find it to be immensely helpful in their healing process in ways that they would have never anticipated. So yeah, I’ve always had it on offer but I find myself using it more and more because it is such a unique and powerful tool.
Jamie DePolo: So just in case anyone doesn’t know, can you walk us through how art therapy works, what’s the process?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Of course.
Jamie DePolo: That would be great.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yeah, so I kind of like to think of art therapy really… So first and foremost, at the heart of any healing process from some significant life-altering experience like cancer, is this identity work, right? Like, cancer is more than just a medical problem. It affects how you relate to your body, how you relate to your mind, to your emotions, to your spirit, and it certainly dominates your identity for a while. And I think for a lot of people, while they want to see significance come, want to make meaning from any significant life experience, they don’t want it to dominate the narrative. You know, everybody who’s been diagnosed with cancer also has many other hats that they wear. And yet, cancer has such deep impact on your psyche, you need a thoughtful way, I think, to retell that story and kind of neutralize the triggers that come with something traumatic.
And so art is this really unique way of tapping in, leaning into something that’s painful in a supported, nurturing, curious way, and so it allows you to both express what has happened by expressing something and translating your internal to external, you begin to self-validate, and that allows you to begin to release and let go and process what’s happened.
So when I’m sitting down with someone, we might choose what I call a jumping-off point, like what’s something about your story? For example, the day you were diagnosed. Let’s tell that story through color in terms of what colors match that experience. Shape, which might be abstract drawing, or it could be specific images that you want to work with and then form. I use visual arts, but you can use any art form, really, to tell the story.
Jamie DePolo: That was actually going to be my next question. Can you use any medium? And it sounds like you can. If someone were drawn to photography or something, they could bring in images that way.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yes, absolutely! Photography, like collage, can be really powerful. I often combine art-making with reflective writing. Poetry often spontaneously erupts from people’s pieces. I’ve seen people doing incredible stuff, dramatically telling their story. So really, almost anything can transform your story. Almost any creative medium can do that for you.
Jamie DePolo: That’s really good to know, because I was thinking — I am not particularly artistically talented myself, so I might feel a little intimidated by having to create something. But the idea that I could perhaps use images from magazines or other things that I see to sort of tell my story, that’s very helpful. It’s almost like it’s an extra support that somebody who doesn’t feel so talented could use.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yes! Yes, and that piece around talent is an important one to bring up because you actually don’t need any particular art skill or talent to use, even the parts of art that might scare you the most effectively [laughs]. Part of what I tell people is we’re not actually looking to create something you’re hanging in the museum. And sometimes we need to work through whatever that baggage was. Each person is born with their own unique form of creativity, and unfortunately, sometimes that gets criticized or judged out and so people often are, in part, doing the work that I’m asking them to do while simultaneously healing that relationship what their unique creative wisdom.
And our creative wisdom is also an aspect of your own inner healer. For example, last week I led a workshop on scanxiety and how to use art to do that. Many people in the room were nervous about how they were going to do, and so part of that is a conversation and supporting them through it. But when I’m guiding someone, I’m giving you explicit guided meditations, and then I help people tease out the details. So you’d be surprised, with just a little bit of support and encouragement and guidance, they figure it out. And it’s such an incredible thing to watch. And it feels like, sometimes, almost like spontaneous healing because something emerges. They weren’t expecting that, and it’s sort of like —because it’s often a grief process — that grief process is almost, you know, popped, and there’s a release-and-relief afterwards. So while sometimes people are like, “Oh my God, I’m going to feel awful if I lean into the experience,” actually the opposite is true. It is normal to want to avoid talking and thinking, re-experiencing something painful, but in fact our bodies and our minds and our psyches hold onto that material and keep kind of throwing it at us until we’ve given it airtime. And so I’ve never had anybody walk away feeling worse, they’ve always walked away feeling better.
Jamie DePolo: That’s great. Not to be gross, but it’s almost like lancing a blister or something. You have to kind of get all the gunk out, and then it can start to heal.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yes. Exactly. Because the other piece is that when something is traumatic, you don’t have all of that just in your consciousness, your full experience, right? You compartmentalize things to survive going through cancer treatment. And so a lot of times people will come to me and say, “I don’t know why I don’t feel happier. I don’t know why this is still bothering me.” And often it’s because they… even if they wanted to tell this story, they can’t follow that narrative completely using words alone.
I remember this one woman who, we were doing a Healing the Body session, and so I had given her some questions to reflect upon prior to our working together. And she came in, and she shared her responses — and again, I help people find that jumping off point. And through the drawing, she was kind of laughing but she was like, “I call my breast cancer breast Frankenboob,” because she had a lumpectomy, right? And she’s like, “So it doesn’t look the same as the other one.” And she had a nice sense of humor about it. But what she realized was that, as she drew the missing tissue, the tissue that had been removed, she’s like, “Having that part of my body removed and I don’t even get to see it again or even in some respects give it a proper burial, was this huge…” She’s like, “I had no idea that was part of my grief.” And so the next time we saw each other, she just felt so much better than when she initially walked through the door. And we worked together, I think we were able to get a total of three sessions in. So even in that little bit of intervention she gained a huge amount of solace.
Jamie DePolo: Excellent, excellent. And you talked a little bit about the benefits of art therapy, but if possible, can you kind of list them out? And then also, are there any risks? I mean I, as a nonprofessional, can’t really imagine that there would be, because it seems so healing. But if there are, if you could talk about both benefits and risks.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Absolutely. I think that one of the benefits is that you… So a lot of people often feel this layer of confusion, and so one of the benefits of art therapy is that through the retelling of your experience, you do get more clarity and you do begin to make those connections in your mind so that your ability to communicate more clearly both with yourself and others is improved. At the same time, I guess one of the risks is that you will likely be feeling your feelings more. So in my mind, that is one reason why it’s important to work with someone who is trained in using art as therapy because that person can help you break down the experience small enough so that you feel prepared to manage those feelings and supported and then have tools for when the feelings resurface again.
And I think one of the benefits, the other benefit of art therapy, is that again, emotional healing from cancer is not a one-and-done kind of deal. You know, it takes time. It often surfaces at the most inconvenient times. So it can be the middle of the night when you wake up and can’t get away from those thoughts or those fears, or you’re trying to keep it together for your children. So art therapy, once you learn how to use it, it can become a lifelong practice. That journal can always be there for you. I don’t know that there’s too many things in life that you can call on with such sense of reliability. The reason why it’s such a reliable tool is that ultimately what you’re doing is rebuilding a very strong connection with yourself, and so, as you learn to use art to mirror what’s happening inside, you begin to create confidence in your ability to be resilient in the face of whatever life, cancer throws your way.
Jamie DePolo: So it’s a tool that you can keep using?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Exactly. It’s always my goal with clients that come to me that they ultimately gain the skills they need so that as much as I enjoy working with them, they don’t have to work with me indefinitely, because the cancer healing journey is going to take a long time. I would say on average, research is being done to demonstrate the link between post-traumatic stress and cancer. So if you get some sort of intervention within the first year, you’re able to move through that process more quickly. Cancer concerns can go on indefinitely, so knowing that, “Ok, I don’t have to have an indefinite relationship with a therapist in order to heal myself,” is really important.
Jamie DePolo: Yes, yes, absolutely. Because just from people I’ve spoken with, once you’ve been diagnosed, the scanxiety is real because that goes on forever.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yes. Right. There’s always a potential that a scan might find something, and actually that’s a valid point in terms of thinking about the changes in the brain, right? So in my mind, scanxiety is kind of like returning to the scene of the crime, right? It was the scan that got you — it wasn’t really responsible for causing the cancer, of course, but it’s the tool that was used to diagnose the moment that everything else changed, the moment you faced your mortality, etc, etc, etc.
So part of the reason why there are triggers is that the part of our brain that’s responsible for protecting us is both a wonderful tool when you need to fight or flee. You want that part of your brain working. But it’s also the least sophisticated part of our brain. It’s the amygdala. The amygdala is going to make meaning from different sensory pieces that aren’t always really related to what’s happened. For example, if you’re rear-ended by a yellow truck, the amygdala is going to say on some level, “All yellow trucks are dangerous.”
Jamie DePolo: Right, right.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: And we know that’s not the case. So think about when you go through cancer diagnosis and treatment, think about all the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, thing that you can touch, that are associated with that experience. Your brain is literally on some level coding that as part of the problem.
Jamie DePolo: Ok.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: So what art can do is find a way, it really helps to neutralize some of that sensory info so that you don’t necessarily walk around feeling startled all the time. And so it really is a very positive tool for managing post-treatment distress or ongoing treatment distress, like scanxiety.
Jamie DePolo: Ok. Now if somebody wanted to try art therapy after listening to this and they thought it might be helpful for them, what are the steps that they might go through? How would a person find an art therapist to work with, because it sounds like in your opinion that’s the best way to start and move forward?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Yes. So I do work with people both in person and virtually, so I can always be on that list of potential resources. Some of the things that I do are writing my #TherapyThursday blog, and there are times that I’m giving explicit information on how to begin practicing some with art therapy. I also do virtual workshops, and I have a private Facebook group called Creating Connections with Creative Transformations, and that’s a place where people can come in and learn more about art therapy and how it helps.
But often, if you really prefer that in-person connection, I highly recommend… You know, so many art therapists are drawn to working with the cancer community. So I would talk to your nurse navigator to see if they know of anybody in the area who is both an art therapist as well as well-versed in cancer. A lot of cancer community orgs will know of people. But you can do things like Psychology Today, click on art therapy and look for someone in the area. It does help if the therapist you’re working with understands cancer or serious medical issues, but even if they’re not well-versed in that, they will know how to use art in an appropriate therapeutic manner.
Jamie DePolo: Ok. And then is art therapy starting to be more common at cancer treatment centers? Is that something that might be offered?
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: There’s a very good chance. I definitely feel… The more I’m out there and getting to know people, yes, there are ways that you can begin there. I really want to do, someday, a project where I get to work directly in the chemo treatment room.
I think it’s become more familiar to people, and hopefully… And there are definitely some therapists who are not art therapists, but they’ve had enough experience that they know how to use it. I’ve met some wonderful social workers who really understand the language of art, so I wouldn’t rule them out. But I’ve had 2 years focusing on how to use art therapeutically in my training, and then I’ve continued to learn and grow in my career.
Jamie DePolo: Stephanie, thank you so much. This has been really wonderful and informative.
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to have this opportunity to speak with everyone today. I want to just share one final quote that I read this morning that I thought really sort of applied to our topic today. It said, “Owning your story is the bravest thing you will ever do.” That’s a Brené Brown quote. And I was like, wow, that’s so appropriate because art really is a form of storytelling, and part of the healing process is telling your story.
Jamie DePolo: That’s great! Thank you!
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez: Thank you.