At a breast cancer survivor’s annual conference, there is a workshop that is usually held which contains the phrase “the new normal.”
I’ve always hated the concept.
In essence, the new normal is finding what is now going to be normal for you post-cancer and you are guaranteed is nothing like who you were before cancer. In other words, you will never get your old self back; get over it.
Of course, the truth is no one is ever the same after any major life change: childbirth, the loss of a loved one, marriage, divorce. Sometimes, you don’t realize the change right away — it just grows on you over time. Other times, it happens unexpectedly and overnight and you are certain never to go back.
Having cancer — particularly breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive organs (in my humble opinion) — is like a combination of all those events. You mourn the loss of body parts, of the ability to do things most people take for granted and of your hopes and dreams. You experience physical, emotional and spiritual pain. You have fear and anxiety. Even if you have the “easiest” breast cancer experience (whatever that means), you will take a ride on a runaway train through all of these feelings.
They don’t tell you about the new normal when you are diagnosed. They let you cling to this idea that you are going to get treated and move on, looking back at the year you had cancer as some terrible, but short-lived, inconvenience. They never once mentioned life as you knew it is over. They let you deal with treatment, first, then explain it later when you ask when you can expect your eyelashes to get back to normal, your neuropathy to go away or the fear to disappear. (Answers: probably never, maybe never and never, but it will get better with time.)
I could (and might) write a whole book about how not to fight this process of starting over. I’m an expert at that fight. It’s exhausting and pointless, but, damn, I’m good at it! Over time, I’ve learned to roll with the punches (I would highly recommend that approach to living). I am obsessed with the idea of writing one’s own story — figuratively — and, since we write our own stories, how plot twists are simply something we must work with, but the story still goes on.
I’ve written my own story many times. I truly think it gets better every time. As my insights and understanding of what happened to me grows, the story gets better.
I’m struggling now, though, with writing the story of my body. While I have learned to write a new story for love, loss and happiness, I have not adjusted to the “new normal” that is my physical limitations. I absolutely yearn for stable health, yet it seems entirely out of my reach.
For about two years after I had chemo, I reached a state of health that I was really happy with. I felt better than ever — perhaps better than I had in years. I had a lot of hope that with the health and fitness regimen I was doing, I would just continue to get better. Then, it stopped. I started to decline and last year had the recurrence, among other things.
It’s very hard for me to adjust my expectations of what my body should be able to do down to the level of what it can do. Where just a short time ago, I could work in my yard, alone, all day, and look back over my accomplishments with pride, now, I can barely manage a 20 minute stretch. I feel like I’ve “done something” if I do light work for 45 minutes out of a day.
Everything in my life is deteriorating (or perhaps it already has reached maximum deterioration) due to my physical limitations and it’s so stressful knowing that’s why — and the stress only adds to the problem. I know what I should be able to do. I know what people expect of a woman my age. And it just doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. But it doesn’t.