On this episode, Stephanie McLeod-Estevez joined me on the podcast. She is a breast cancer survivor and an art therapist. At the age of 40, Stephanie was diagnosed with stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer. She also has a BRCA2 mutation. Stephanie shared her story behind the pink ribbon. Following the loss of her mother to metastatic breast cancer, Stephanie became an art therapist, which was deeply healing for her as she learned how to support others through creativity.
In 2014, at the age of 40, Stephanie McLeod-Estevez was diagnosed with Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer. Due to a family history of breast cancer- both her mother and her maternal aunt were diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43- Stephanie was referred to a geneticist and a breast health specialist when she turned 30 years old. She recalls having a baseline mammogram before having her children. While she was a candidate for genetic testing, she opted not to have it done. She was still grieving the loss of her mother and feels that had she known at that time that she was BRCA2 positive, she may not have had her children and she would have regretted that. She thought about the genetic testing again around the time that Angelina Jolie shared her story but did not have it done until she had her own diagnosis.
Stephanie had a dream that she had breast cancer. When she woke up the following day, she found a lump in her left breast. She thought perhaps it was a caffeine cyst and that if she stopped drinking coffee, the cyst would go away; it didn’t and in fact, continued to get bigger. Stephanie was also concerned because she had bad insurance at the time. She already had an appointment scheduled with her new primary care physician for when her new insurance started. Once the doctor examined Stephanie’s breast, she immediately sent Stephanie for a mammogram followed by an ultrasound and a biopsy. While it was a long day, she knew within 3-4 days that she had breast cancer. Her diagnosis with stage 3 with 3 lymph nodes affected.
Her recommended course of treatment began with chemotherapy in order to shrink the tumor. Stephanie’s mother had not undergone a mastectomy but Stephanie always had it in the back of her mind that if she ever had breast cancer, she would have a bilateral mastectomy. While she was very resolute in that decision, her doctors were concerned with the size of the tumor. Stephanie underwent five months of chemotherapy prior to having a bilateral mastectomy. She was disappointed because she could not complete the recommended course of treatment because her body could no longer handle it. The chemotherapy was effective in killing cancer on the left side, but stage 0 cancer was also found on the right side at the time of surgery. Stephanie struggled to understand how cancer could begin to develop in the other breast while she was undergoing chemotherapy to kill cancer.
Following the mastectomy, Stephanie underwent radiation therapy due to the lymph node involvement. She did well with the radiation but continues to contend with tightness and rib pain, as well as her range of motion. Radiation was followed by implants and a hysterectomy during the same surgery. Stephanie is considering another surgery as she currently has textured implants but there is some hesitation due to the possible long-term impact on her skin from the radiation and if it will hold up for another surgery.
Due to the cancer being triple-negative, Stephanie is not prescribed any other medications like many other survivors. It is like a double-edged sword. She knows that there are many unpleasant side effects that come along with medications like Tamoxifen so she is relieved to not have to experience those but on the other side, she realizes that there is nothing more that she can do to prevent a recurrence other than taking care of herself.
Stephanie was 19 when her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Stephanie was in college at the time and her mother told her to just do what she needed for herself. Stephanie continued to attend college and kept in touch with her mother throughout. Her mother had a recurrence of breast cancer when Stephanie was 25 years old and she serves as her mother’s primary caregiver. She was devastated by the loss of her mother. While she never imagined that she would become a therapist, like her mother, she found a school for Art Therapy. The experience was deeply healing for Stephanie. It helped her to move through the loss of her mother and she became her own healing tool once she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A comment that Stephanie’s mother made to her in between her initial diagnosis and her recurrence, really stuck with Stephanie. Her mother shared how scared she still was even though her cancer treatments were finished. This caught Stephanie off guard because she didn’t realize that the fear could still be there after the journey is finished. While her mother had done a lot of healing, she had not solved how to live without fear. This was both informational and helpful for Stephanie in her own breast cancer experience. She had a focus on living life after cancer. She wanted to find a way to live as free as she can- physically, emotionally, and spiritually- despite what the future holds. Having her own experience with breast cancer, made her feel closer to her mother.
Stephanie works with cancer patients and survivors. Art therapy is a way to communicate one’s experience from the internal to the external. It is very powerful, remarkable, and very healing to have an emotional connection with something you have created. She is currently offering teletherapy and offering different individual coaching practices. She is in the process of writing a book about Art Therapy specifically for breast cancer survivors.