Upon hearing that I am cancer-free thus far, people flippantly ask me if I’m now used to the “new me” or the “new normal.” I’m sure they mean well, but I really don’t know what they mean. They are tossing about meaningless phrases. I don’t like being typecast into nonsensical words like the “new me” and “new normal” because — even if cancer is not involved — a “normal” life does not exist.
Life is orchestrated chaos: if we are lucky, we get to control some of our circumstances. If we are lucky, we get to meet some goals and achieve a few dreams.
However, we shouldn’t get too complacent; life has a way of screwing it all up.
Throw cancer into the mix, for example. Post-cancer life, frankly, is not a new normal.
In fact, my cancer survivorship is the new abnormal.
I’m NED (no evidence of disease) thus far, and I am incredibly grateful for all the bountiful gifts life has to offer. Every day I’m reminded of how lucky I am: I appreciate my days of physical and mental health. I’m able to walk and swim, appreciate nature, read, write, and create art. I have a terrific, supportive network of friends and a wonderful daughter to share my life with.
But I will not forgive cancer for changing my orchestrated chaos to the new abnormal.
It was abnormal, for instance, to have chemicals pumped into my body. And to have chemotherapy-induced menopause. And to have my breasts amputated and replaced by make-believe breasts. And to have osteopenia at a young age, as well as bone fractures due to all the treatments.
And for me to have PTSD. And for insurance companies to cover PTSD treatments for military personnel, but not cover them for someone who has experienced something just as frightening as going to war and facing death. (Pardon the war analogy, but in this case it fits.)
As I write this, it is 12:30 a.m. It’s not normal to be up so late panicking because it is nighttime, and the darkness reminds me of death and cancer demons and ICU. That’s when my PTSD is at its worst: at night. Why, oh why, aren’t the anti-anxiety medications kicking in yet? I take them to minimize the flashbacks and anxiety related to my cancer experience.
Frankly, cancer has flattened me good.
In all the brochures and pamphlets I read as a newly diagnosed patient, there was no information on how to survive after cancer — if one was lucky enough to be finished with cancer treatment. Why is this?
When I finished radiation, I got a certificate of “graduation” and applause and was sent on my way. When I finished chemotherapy, my chemo nurse celebrated, as did my family and friends. Everybody was happy I was “done” with cancer and would return to normal.
But cancer wasn’t “done” with me. I would never be the same again. After I was given the all-clear to get on with the rest of my life, I found myself gasping and struggling and in anguish. I remember my first post-treatment commute to work, the beginning of my introduction to civilian life. I looked at my reflection in the train car window, and all I could think of were, “What the hell just happened to me?” and “Who the hell am I?”
This is the world of the new abnormal.
My family loves me; they don’t want to see me suffer. Some of them know I have PTSD, but they don’t bring it up. You know, the mental health stigma. When I was getting treatment for cancer, they did want to know how I was faring. But they don’t ask how I am faring now. So I’ve since stopped talking about it with them.
I get it: They need to believe that I’m over cancer. But I will never be over it.
I’m happy to say that I am successfully navigating survivorship in the new abnormal, but some days I just lack the energy to cope as well as I can. Survivorship takes a lot of raw mental, emotional, and physical energy. Some days you have it, and some days you don’t.
All I can do is take great care of myself and my child. And pick up the pieces, even though they can’t be put back together.
How have you dealt with survivorship physically and/or emotionally?
Did a medical/social service professional discuss a survivorship plan?
These questions also apply to those with metastatic disease.
Please share your experiences. I would love to hear about them.
Tags: cancer aftermath, cancer survivorship, life after cancer treatment, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, post-cancer life, PTSD, PTSD and cancer, the new normal