Once you get over the initial shock of a breast cancer diagnosis and start to focus on treatment, one of your first questions is "What’s the timeline? When is my life going to get back to normal?"
Well, sister, I’ve got news for you. Your life is never going to get back to "normal." As one of the oncology nurses at our cancer center says, your life is now divided this way: B.C. (before cancer) and A.C. (after cancer). And she’s right.
Whoa, now don’t start panicking I didn’t say your life was never going to be good again. And I didn’t mean it wouldn’t settle down into a pleasant routine. I’m just saying yesterday’s normal is gone for good, replaced by a "new normal." One that you just might find more satisfying than the original.
Case in point: personal topography. Your treatment no doubt included surgery. So whether it was a lumpectomy or a bilateral mastectomy, part of your body is gone. And it ain’t growing back. Unlike your hair, which WILL grow back but in its very own style and color. It’s like your hair says, “Oh, great, a fresh new start. I think I’ll come back kinky-curly” and I was getting tired of the same-old, same-old light brown, so how about" light gray?" Expect a new hairstyle AND hue.
And then there are those pesky long-term side effects, a.k.a. "later effects.“ Stuff that crops up and sticks with you for months or years. Like hot flashes. Or the dry vagina thing, which can lead to a whole bunch of side issues” well, you can imagine. That tingle in your chest and armpit, where the surgeon’s scalpel severed nerves on the way to cutting out the tumor and excising lymph nodes.
And let’s not mention sleep disruption. Or no, let’s. Maybe B.C. you were out like a light the moment your head hit the pillow, but now you find yourself tossing and turning. Or you could sleep 8 hours at a stretch, and now 90 minutes of solid slumber seems like heaven. You used to wake up fresh and rested; now it feels like you’ve been hit by a dump truck, till you get up and get moving. Sleep issues affect a lot of us" yawn.
“Why are you telling me all this? ‘The new normal’ sounds awful”"
Actually, it isn’t. It’s just" different. You get used to anything, in time. Hot flashes, pain, fear of recurrence" whatever. The day-after-day repetition of anything eventually makes it "normal." And normal isn’t something you notice much, after awhile.
So how can the "new normal" be better than the old? Because “later effects" aren’t all negative. Many women report feeling happier A.C.: less stressed, more content, able to see what’s really important, to let go of the little issues that used to seem so aggravating. A friend’s smile, the smell of cool rain on hot asphalt, your son taking out the garbage without being asked” A.C, these all seem bigger and brighter than they ever did before. Heck, just driving to work can be a daily thrill, once you’ve had to question whether you’d ever make that drive again.
My advice? Let go of that old life. Embrace the new one. Because, guess what? A.C., it’s the only life you’ve got. Might as well enjoy it.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.