Fran writes about what 'normal' means to her two-and-a-half years on from her breast cancer treatment.
What does ‘normal’ mean?
A little while ago I had a lovely lunch with a woman who had shared the same chemo sessions as me. She asked me a question: ‘Do you ever feel normal?’
That would take a lot of answering and would be different for every one of us. We are all so different – our needs and responses to life and all it throws at us vary immensely. So maybe the next questions are, ‘Do you feel the same as you did before your cancer diagnosis?’ Or, ‘Are you back to who you were before?’
We all have a different experience
I asked a few people I knew who have been diagnosed. The first reply was: ‘I don’t think I will ever feel normal or get back to where I was before, but I have a different outlook on life now, an outlook which is positive and encouraging and which makes me appreciate my life and my family.’
Another friend who had chemo and radiotherapy at the same time as me told me that she feels as though she has recently turned a corner. Her life has suddenly became more about family, work and having relaxing times rather than about cancer.
I’m struck by how my nails and hair are growing back
Then I asked Alice what her thoughts were. Alice is one of the most positive people I know, and has inner strength in buckets.
‘I think the honest truth about life after breast cancer treatment is that you need to be focused mentally and physically on accepting your "new normal". Once your body has undergone fairly drastic surgery and months of constructive poisoning (all for your long-term benefit), I don’t think there’s any way to get back to ‘the way you were’. So the future is just a new normal!
'There are certainly days when I pine for my long thick hair or to go shopping for pretty underwear without mastectomy pockets, but at the same time I’m constantly in awe of how your body works incredibly hard to rejuvenate itself. The nails I never thought would return are back, the eyelashes which disappeared grow longer every day, and my entire bald body is getting hairier by the month! The sensitive gums, the dripping nose, the funny taste buds and the menopausal flushes are all a memory now.
‘Even the numb, flat chest has been accepted by my mind so that it doesn’t feel so odd to touch. I do still get days or weeks of tiredness, my hair is still thin, especially on the top, and I still have to remind myself when I look in the mirror to be grateful. This body has fought back against so much and tries every day to continue rebuilding.
‘Things will never be the same and I think it’s OK to be sad for what you’ve lost, so long as you encourage yourself to put more energy into looking forward at what you’ve still got, and how far you’ve come. Each year I feel more like me, more accepting, and I hope to keep growing physically and mentally with each year that comes.’
I still feel I am my old self
Do I feel the same as I did before my diagnosis? I believe my answer is that in many ways I do feel back to ‘me’. We all adjust to things that happen in our lives. We appraise the world and our lives differently, we react to the way our family members grow up and change. But adjusting to some of the changes that have occurred in the last few years does not make me not ‘normal’ or not ‘me’.
I know that if I am ill, or have symptoms that might suggest something serious, I now react very differently. I am more concerned and worry more than in the past. I don’t think this makes me unlike my old self, it’s a natural reaction to protect and care about myself. When the yearly hospital tests arrive, of course I will think about what might happen, but I also think how lucky it is that we can detect abnormalities and that I can be monitored so that I feel cared for and looked after.
I can’t do everything I used to
For a large part of my life I have played golf and I was delighted that I could still hit a golf ball after my surgery. What was different was that I couldn’t play 18 holes and I still can’t. This means that I am unable to enter any competitions because they are all held over 18 holes.
At first, I thought that I would give up golf because it was going to be different and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy that competitive streak that lies within me. This winter while it was wet, freezing and the golf course was closed, I decided to have a think about what I should do. I realised that it was not about me being competitive, but rather, would I enjoy golf without trying to thrash the pants off everyone else? I decided yes – it was lovely to walk around a golf course, and it was good for my arm to hit the ball without having to worry about the result. I should relax and enjoy it for what it is. So, that’s the plan.
I’ve realised I need to be realistic
I have always had a pretty positive attitude to life and this is one thing that has changed, but not for the worse. The way I think now is that negativity is not a very helpful emotion. Life needs to be dealt with and things need to be faced realistically.
I try to deal with what happens and to move forward, not dwelling on things I can’t change, but understanding them. The one thing that is really important for me is to celebrate the good in the world, whether its family, friends, people I meet randomly, the sunshine, beautiful places, music, art, a good book... I could go on. There are so many wonderful things that lift my heart every day, and while I can appreciate them, that’s what I will do.
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