Friday, October 9, 2009

Your "new normal"

As a cancer patient, your goal is to reach the end of your active course of treatment, and to get your life back to where it was before you were diagnosed. But, like so many other things, this is not as easy as it sounds, physically, mentally, or emotionally. And, the truth is: your life will never be the same. You have gone through a life-altering experience. There's a term for what you're attempting to establish: your "new normal"; meaning living as normally as possible, knowing that you cannot restore your pre-cancer life.

Your transition from a "cancer patient" to a "person with cancer" isn't easy. You eagerly hoped for the end of your active treatment period, when it seems as if all of your waking moments are spent going to medical appointments, imaging studies, chemo and/or radiation, lab testing, etc. You know that it's necessary, but you can't wait for it to be over, and you feel more like a patient than a person.

When you're placed on "follow-up", you're going to really miss the personal contact with, and support from, the majority of the wonderful people who got you through a hellish period of your life. You will feel very alone as you face the future. You need to prepare for how you will handle this transition, and what resources you'll need to establish your "new normal".

You may find that emotions which you suppressed during treatment are now coming to the surface, such as anger and sadness. This is similar to post-traumatic stress, or delayed grief. It's vital that you face your feelings and work through them; otherwise, they will prevent you from moving on with your life. Talking to family, close friends, or even joining a support group will help you realize that you are not as alone as you might feel at this time.

Chances are, you'll deal each day with physical reminders of what you've been through as well: I see my scars, and as they are healing, I'm also healing inside. I don't think about my cancer returning, but if it does, I know that I'm strong enough to face it. I won't allow cancer to "co-opt" my present, or my future. I wake up each day seeing the person in the mirror as someone who has "had" cancer, even though I still visit my doctors, take daily meds, and will be doing so for a few more years.

Many people, as part of their "new normal", choose to do something which gives meaning and purpose to their cancer experience. For me, it was deciding to begin this website, writing about my journey. Previously, I wouldn't have had the courage to do something like this, but this is one of the "gifts" of my cancer. I wanted to take something negative and turn it into a positive; I also hoped that sharing my feelings might be of some help to other cancer patients.

People also decide at this time to follow their dreams, do things they never had the chance to do before, or take their future life in an entirely different direction, such as: going on that trip they've only imagined, climbing a mountain, or starting their own business. The rest of your life from this point forward should be defined by you, not by your disease.

For me, the dream is to retire and to move to Maui. After all that I've been through, I'm even more determined to make this my reality. I want to die there, and have my ashes scattered at Keawakapu. When Lindbergh was receiving medical treatment in New York, and it was confirmed that he only had a few days to live, he asked to be flown back to Maui so that he could die at his beloved Kipahulu. I feel the same way.

Focus on your future, and do something meaningful with the life which has been "given back" to you.

Life is precious. Don't waste it!


  1. I like your comment that the rest of your life should be defined by you,not your disease. I am now 4 years out from treatment, stage IIA, and only now do I not think about breast cancer every day. I find it difficult to let it go, and worry about my children and husband, who has severe mental health issues, if I were to die from this. I do my best to enjoy the little things in life, and try not to think too far in the future. God bless you, and may it be a long time yet before anyone scatters your ashes!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, and congratulations on your 4 years out. I know that the possibility of leaving our loved ones is always somewhere in the back of our minds. Worrying about the future can be a very crippling thing, preventing us from enjoying the present. As I have written here, life truly is all about "the little things". Wishing a long life to you, also!