According to Albert Camus, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
The transition from patient under active treatment to being just an everyday cancer survivor can be a most challenging experience for many of us. Our surgical scars and the radiation burns have subsided and those that remain are usually covered by our clothes. Bottom line is that we do look healthier. Given our current situation we should all be happier? But, are we? For many of us being happy just doesn’t seem to be where it is for us!
Major life transitions often are accompanied by our gaining some insight into our new roles and like when we graduate form school we are given a ceremony, a right of passage. As most of us know being told we have cancer can be very much like having a car rear end our car or having a brick fall on us as we walk on the sidewalk. Usually, we have had no preparation and no warning of what was just around the corner for us. Most surprisingly, completing our treatment is similar. Our scars are healing, or at least covered and our bodies are getting stronger. But what about our brains? Finishing treatment can leave us with a huge loss that we were just not prepared to have.
Our family and our friends, all who have invested huge amounts of energy and time into our really just want to return to a normal life. So do we, but most of us are not able to just return to a normal life. For us survivors life is different, a new normal! Life is different, its more stressful we are often feeling anxious and, in all honestly we we often feel that we have been abandoned. We used to be the center of attention. Post treatment we are left with much more to cope with and sometimes with fewer resources.
Show me a cancer survivor who doesn’t live in constant fear of a recurrence and I will show you an uneducated person or a liar. We all have lost physical strength, which may never be regained, and we may have found that close friends had chosen to abandon us out of their own fear. Some of us might have lost our jobs, maybe even our spouses or partners. Basically our ife has become, at best, uncertain and our future very cloudy.
Our new normal will include regularly visiting an oncologist, getting scans and blood tests for the rest of our lifetime. We will be poked and prodded until we die and we will live in fear until we get the results of the most recent test. If we have any stiffness or pain we immediately think the worse, our cancer has again reared its ugly head.
The drugs we take to maintain this new normal don’t come cheap. They guarantee we will be the recipient of side many debilitating side effects. Breast cancer survivors who take tamoxifen and prostate cancer survivors on hormone therapy all will experience major and constant side effects.
Don’t forget incontinence, erectile dysfunction, loss of libido and general surgical pain, these all will become a part of our new normal, but these issues are usually invisible to the rest of the world. For us survivors they become our way of life, our new normal.
Almost never discussed, but a really big issue in the new normal might even be “survivor guilt,” especially if we have a close friend who shared the journey and is no longer with us.
We have to deal with all this, but with diminished resources while also experiencing significant pain. How do we do it? There are things we can do to help; focusing on yoga, breathing exercises, writing, mindfulness, physical exercise and the ‘Zen Arts’ are a few possibilities. These help to build our resources to make the new normal a little easier to live with. We need to constantly guard against falling off the wall of normal and allowing the dark side of normal from swallowing us.
Joel T. Nowak, M.A., M.S.W.