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September 11, 2015

Learning to Live after Breast Cancer: Don’t Call my Life the “New Normal.”

OXLAEY.com/Flickr

Do you know what Pinktober is? It’s the phrase breast cancer survivors and advocates use to refer to breast cancer awareness month.

You know, that time of year when every man, woman and child is inundated with pink messages and pink products and pink everything in order to raise awareness about breast cancer.

The problem? We are already aware.

I’m so aware. Every time I look in the mirror and I see my scars and hair that isn’t mine and feel the aches and pains of treatment I’m aware. Buying a pink can of soup isn’t what made me, my friends or my family aware. It just serves as a reminder. A reminder of the horror and fear.

Now that treatment is over, though, it’s all past me, right? It’s time for me to claim my  “new normal.” New normal? There is no new normal after cancer.

The morning I went to see my plastic surgeon for my three month follow-up I woke with a low grade panic. What would he say? What would I say? Will I ever be normal?! Since my cancer diagnosis, going to see a doctor—any doctor—turns everything upside down. Even if it’s a good appointment or one that I’ve known about for months.

Sitting in the waiting room, I begin to calm down. The office is nice and quiet and familiar now. When I see the doctor, we discuss how I’m healing from the first phase of reconstruction. We talk about how I’m still healing three months later; the thumb sized gaping hole in my breast is now a “pinprick” thankfully. He says, that’s normal. I don’t know his definition of normal but taking three months for a gaping whole in my chest to heal doesn’t fit within my definition of normal.

Then, we talk about phase two—my reconstruction surgery; the part that the doctor’s office very clinically calls symmetry surgery. This is when the doctor goes in and does his best work—the work that is supposed to give me a normal look. What does he consider normal?

I can’t help but think that I will never look normal. Normal, to me, is my body before cancer. I won’t ever have that back.

Don’t get me wrong. My medical team did wonders. Up until this point, all the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the radiation—they were all designed to rid me of cancer and give me some resemblance of my life back. We talked ad nauseum about the physical maladies that come along with cancer and its treatment. “Get it out and keep It out,” was the game plan.

But now? Now I cope with psychological mess. My memory of my life is like a library after a hurricane: I reorder my thinking, putting thoughts and experiences back together onto organized bookshelves in my mind. It’s a slow, methodical process.

Yesterday I was so angry that my hair wouldn’t lay the way I like. I mean, really? It’s just hair. Or at least people tell me so. But it’s so much more than that to me. It’s a constant reminder that things are not as they were—and they never will be. That I’m not normal.

A good friend, who is also a cancer survivor, tells me that she hates the term “the new normal” and I agree with her. If you search “new normal” and “cancer” on the Internet you get a bunch of hits for articles purporting to help survivors reclaim their life. The sentiment is nice. It really is. And I hate to be the contrarian, but …

You can’t reclaim your life after cancer.

Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing. The phrase evokes the feeling that some things will go back to the way they were. But they won’t. They can’t. After cancer, your life is marked by difference. Not normal. And I think accepting that is the quickest way to get through the fear and the panic and the anger and, yes, the mourning.

That’s not to say that things are going to suck forever. Quite the opposite. I’ve already had some incredibly happy and wonderful times since the cloud of cancer has been lifted from me and my family. But I don’t call my life the new normal. Please don’t ask me if I’ve adjusted to the new normal. That’s not what I’m not looking for.

I say, screw normal. Normal or abnormal, well, it’s all just living, isn’t it?! So, I wish you as much normality or abnormality as you can handle. Then, I’ll have what you’re having.

~

Author: Jenn McRobbie

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: OXLAEY.com/Flickr

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Jenn McRobbie