It seems to be routine all over the world to counsel cancer patients to learn to accept and work with the “new normal” instead of excessively regretting the losses that cancer brings. This is good advice, as far as it goes, but I find it aggravating some times.
I was trying to remember what my baseline was before cancer came into my life. I had lots of energy, I recall. I liked to walk quickly over distances. One of my hobbies was urban hiking. I also rode the stationary bicycle with a good resistance for 90 minutes at a time. I loved to do housework: the deep cleaning, take things apart and clean the components kind of cleaning. Even the afternoon before my mastectomy I washed floors on my hands and knees to get out stubborn spots (that only I could see, but that’s a different topic).
I was outgoing and went out a lot. I taught classes and gave lectures. I met with individuals and groups. I wrote reams and had columns in periodicals. I worked hard and carried my responsibilities lightly. I was friendly and laughed easily. I took care of sick people. I knitted little caps and jackets for premature babies and donated them to hospitals. I made lace with the finest threads that could be imported from Europe.
It was around Christmas 2003 that I felt the lump and my life changed radically and irrevocably. There have been so many “new normals” since then. The new normal of a deformed, scarred body. The new normal of living with extreme nausea, anorexia and fatigue during chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Sure, you get better afterwards but many people – and I am one of them – never return to pre-chemo baselines. Each succeeding round of treatment, each new normal means lower functioning than the one before.
There is the new normal of living from exam to exam, test to test, treatment to treatment. The new normal of unremitting pain, varying only in intensity. The new normal of swallowing many pills every day and needing a 28-compartment pill box (seven days, four slots per day) to keep track of them. The new normal of having to conserve energy, of being unable to do demanding physical work or exercise. Of having a tremor in my hands and not being able to take a clear photograph any more, or to do handwork with fine threads. The new normal of having to ask for and accept help.
There is yet another new normal. Eight and a half years after the day I found the lump (sounds like there should be a German term for it, Klumpenfundentag or some such) I have discovered new dimensions to gratitude and thanksgiving. It is no longer just a formula to say I am grateful for my health: it’s heartfelt. I have discovered new depths of spirituality and new ways to pray and intercede. I have discovered new compassion in myself for people who suffer.
At my new normal I am a gentler person than I used to be. I am more forgiving of others and more willing to give the benefit of a doubt, to consider that the person who is driving me out of mind may have hidden struggles and secret pain. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve become a humble person (a person who was my spiritual companion once said my pride and self-will would probably die 15 minutes after my body) but I have become a bit less prideful and more patient with others – and even with myself.
I like to think that the cancer has merely accelerated changes that would have taken place anyway, but who knows? Maybe I would have become harder and more unbending and more self-sufficient (in a negative sense) without having this hardship in my life. I’m trying to be objective in this look at my new(est) normal. That means that I have to acknowledge that in many ways I am a better person than I was eight and a half years ago.
I am no bliss ninny and I am not saying that I’m glad or grateful that I have cancer. I am not. I doubt I ever will be, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be so. Would I trade everything I own and everything I will ever own in my life in exchange for good health? I sure would – in a hot minute! Would I trade my new “kinder, gentler” self?
No. I don’t think I would.