Establishing Your New Normal: Life After Cancer

Can my life be normal after breast cancer?

This was one of the search terms used to direct a reader to my blog recently. I was really struck by the question, and I want to reach out to whoever it is who is asking it and try to answer it as best I can. I know it is a question many of us have struggled with, so it would be wonderful if you could join me in reaching out to this person and sharing your own thoughts and experiences.

When grappling with a question, my first port of call is always to the dictionary. I find I think clearer if I can define the question first.  Here is what I found when I looked up the definition of “normal” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected

noun

the usual, typical, or expected state or condition

A few things came up for me after reading this definition. Firstly, the expectation that our family, friends,  work colleagues (and sometimes we ourselves) have that once we are finished with our treatment, we can just pick up where we left off and return to our normal lives.

Secondly, “conforming to a standard” brought to mind images of what the “perfect” cancer patient is expected to conform to.

Interestingly the OED expands the definition of normal to:

Phrase

the new normal

chiefly

North American

a previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected: 32% of Americans say spending less is the new normal, according to a recent poll.
The new normal is a phrase we are increasingly becoming familiar with in the cancer literature.
Cancer patients crave “feeling normal” and try to work the gray areas of living with uncertainty into daily living.  It becomes normal—a “new normal”—to live with the stress of cancer survivorship ~ Cancer Advocacy Now
Cancer changes you. You will never be the same person you were before a diagnosis of cancer. When you stand on the threshold of your new reality, it can be a scary and lonely place.
It takes time to find your new normal. Be patient and gentle with yourself, especially in the first few months after treatment ends.
Dealing with fatigue, concerns around body image, residual pain, perhaps a dip in your confidence will mean you are not ready to jump right back into your old routines of socializing and work straight away. You may wonder if you ever will be again.

Some survivors feel unexpectedly shy in social settings. I’ve spoken to a handful of women who moved soon after treatment, and they all struggled to break into their new communities. Their stubbly heads took a toll on their confidence, and residual fatigue left them with little energy for mingling. But it was making conversation that proved hardest. Idle chitchat seemed vaguely insincere, but introducing the whole cancer story was even more awkward—inspiring shock, confusion, or deafening silence. It’s no wonder it took several years for these women to feel at home in their new surroundings ~ Stupid Cancer blog

Your new normal may include making changes in the way you eat, the things you do, and your sources of support.  By integrating new habits and behaviors, you create your “new normal.”  Sometimes, that transition to a “new normal” can prompt survivors to re-examine their life choices. We may take this opportunity to reappraise our jobs and our family relationships and friendships. We find we are less willing to be tolerant of what we may have put with before cancer.  We vow to start living a life more true to who we really are.
These are just some of my thoughts on getting back to normal after cancer treatment, but I am sure you will have much more to add to the discussion. Please share your comments on how you experienced your own return to normal, or did you find a new normal when you finished your treatment?