The New Normal

This piece was written by Michelle Kaplan who went on to become a mom after her breast cancer treatment (Dear Cancer: You Can’t Have it All). I think it sums up beautifully what life is like in the “new normal.”

By Michelle J. Kaplan
July 5, 2006

Two years out from my breast cancer diagnosis and I have a different perspective on my life than I did being one year out. Last year I was filled with euphoria (BIG understatement) at being done with surgery, chemo, and radiation. I naively thought that I’m done and I am going to go back to the way things were minus one or two things that I resolved to do differently.

Yet, once that euphoria wore off, I realized that my heart, mind, and body would never be the same. That once you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness it really is never over. Even after the treatments are done and people resume their old lives and want you to get back to your life, you know you can’t and you feel stuck. Stuck in a place where you yearn for some of the things and the innocence of the way they were before your diagnosis and other things totally different. Other survivors told me that feeling this way is normal. It’s called the “new” normal.

The new normal is knowing that you will never be cured.  That you are in remission and that you are still deciding on courses of treatment to prevent recurrence.  Deciding on medicine that your oncologist wants you to take that may or may not help you prevent getting cancer again, but while taking it makes you feel fuzzy, achy and sluggish.  Making big decisions on which treatment to do and constantly battling in your mind the quantity versus quality of life factor.

The new normal is being tired of going to the hospital you did your treatment in. It’s being resigned to the fact that you will continue to be poked and prodded during numerous checkups.  It’s being stuck with a needle for blood or to receive medicine that, as a needle-phobic, I will never get used to. It knows everyone who works at the hospital, from doctors, nurses, technicians and even the parking attendants. Each time you go back it makes you realize you are still a patient when all you want to do is store away the memories of the past few years and move on.

The new normal is when your body is still tired and weak and bloated from medication. It’s when you realize that you still don’t feel like your old self and are unsure as to when you will.  The body that wants to fit into my old jeans and gets upset and frustrated when you can’t.

The new normal is living with the fact that I will never be a biological mom since the chemo, the medicine to ensure I get all the cancer out of my body, ended that for me.  It’s realizing that life isn’t fair, that you aren’t going to get everything you want and feeling the pain of a dream dying.  You learn that there is a “cost” for everything and for me the trade-off for living is to do so without experiencing childbirth.

The new normal is seeing too much pain and suffering as you watch a good friend pass away from the same disease you had, but never got under control, and wondering why a beautiful, 40-year old woman died and you did not. It’s asking about friends you met in the chemo room that you haven’t seen for awhile and finding out that they didn’t make it.  It’s hearing about another person who got diagnosed and having your heart sink into your stomach as you think about the journey they are about to embark on and wishing that they didn’t have to go through it all.  It’s also talking to many, too many, women who are about to undergo treatment and helping them through their experience as best as you can without feeling helpless.

The new normal is being selfish with the one thing no one has enough of-time.  It’s being impatient with people who just “don’t get it” as they argue and are negative about things that really won’t matter 100 years from now.  It’s truly understanding the gift of goodbye to people who don’t support you and treat you with respect.  Instead you fill your life with people whom you love and care for.

The new normal has helped me rediscover who I am and what I am passionate about.  It has given me a better appreciation for the simple things in life like the hugs and kisses from my niece and nephews, completing a good run on the treadmill, playing tennis, cooking for family and friends, a thank you for a job well done from one of your colleagues, and just hanging out around the house.  You realize the blessing of a boring day and that quiet time helps restore your mind and body.

The new normal is full of hope and purpose as you struggle to understand what is truly important to you.  It’s filled with action, not answers, as you decide not to waste any time on unimportant things, people, and events.  It’s about redefining what success means to you as you pursue the things that matter the most. It’s the understanding that time, energy, and money are limited and not to waste any of it. It’s the reason why I pursued a new position at my company doing what I love, on buying a new home, and starting the process of adopting a baby girl from Guatemala.  You learn that life goes on and it can be great.  Different than what you thought, but still great.

The new normal teaches you that life is full of choices and that you decide each day how you are going to live it. It’s realizing that we possess unlimited potential and that WE stop ourselves from our dreams with negative self-talk and a lack of confidence. We choose our moods, feelings, and actions each moment and I have decided to live each day with optimism and purpose. It means that I am hopeful for the present and the future and that I choose to see only the good in other people and situations. The “realistic” people tell you that you are being naive or a pushover and that your choices aren’t practical. They try to talk you out of your decisions on how to live your life. They ask “Why”?  My reply back is “Why not?”

The new normal is truly feeling the unconditional love from your parents, siblings, family, and friends and knowing that you are never alone.  That people who you barely knew before your diagnosis stepped up to the plate and helped in any way possible.  It restores your faith in people.  It makes you appreciate all the unique qualities of each person and to be sure to tell them how special they are.

The new normal knows that once you’ve been through this experience you know you can handle anything.  As a result you are less fearful and are more open to taking calculated risks.  What’s the worst that can happen, right?  You worry less about what people think about you and that it’s okay to sing Broadway show tunes at work or to bluntly tell people what you think of them.  And even if things do go wrong or go not as you planned, you learn that this too shall pass and that you only take the time to fix the things you have control over and not worry about the things out of your control.  It just wasn’t meant to be.

The new normal has taught me that if all my experiences throughout the past two years has gotten me to the place that I am now; filled with love, purpose, support and in the constant pursuit of my dreams mixed in with some sadness, frustration, and anger then…………

So Be It.

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson

Writer. Blogger. Advocate. Breast Cancer Conscript.