This piece was written by Michelle Kaplan who went on to become a mom after her breast cancer treatment (Dear Cancer: You Can’t Have it All). I think it sums up beautifully what life is like in the “new normal.”
By Michelle J. Kaplan
July 5, 2006
Two years out from my breast cancer diagnosis and I have a different perspective on my life than I did being one year out. Last year I was filled with euphoria (BIG understatement) at being done with surgery, chemo, and radiation. I naively thought that I’m done and I am going to go back to the way things were minus one or two things that I resolved to do differently.
Yet, once that euphoria wore off, I realized that my heart, mind, and body would never be the same. That once you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness it really is never over. Even after the treatments are done and people resume their old lives and want you to get back to your life, you know you can’t and you feel stuck. Stuck in a place where you yearn for some of the things and the innocence of the way they were before your diagnosis and other things totally different. Other survivors told me that feeling this way is normal. It’s called the “new” normal.
The new normal is knowing that you will never be cured. That you are in remission and that you are still deciding on courses of treatment to prevent recurrence. Deciding on medicine that your oncologist wants you to take that may or may not help you prevent getting cancer again, but while taking it makes you feel fuzzy, achy and sluggish. Making big decisions on which treatment to do and constantly battling in your mind the quantity versus quality of life factor.
The new normal is being tired of going to the hospital you did your treatment in. It’s being resigned to the fact that you will continue to be poked and prodded during numerous checkups. It’s being stuck with a needle for blood or to receive medicine that, as a needle-phobic, I will never get used to. It knows everyone who works at the hospital, from doctors, nurses, technicians and even the parking attendants. Each time you go back it makes you realize you are still a patient when all you want to do is store away the memories of the past few years and move on.
The new normal is when your body is still tired and weak and bloated from medication. It’s when you realize that you still don’t feel like your old self and are unsure as to when you will. The body that wants to fit into my old jeans and gets upset and frustrated when you can’t.
The new normal is living with the fact that I will never be a biological mom since the chemo, the medicine to ensure I get all the cancer out of my body, ended that for me. It’s realizing that life isn’t fair, that you aren’t going to get everything you want and feeling the pain of a dream dying. You learn that there is a “cost” for everything and for me the trade-off for living is to do so without experiencing childbirth.
The new normal is seeing too much pain and suffering as you watch a good friend pass away from the same disease you had, but never got under control, and wondering why a beautiful, 40-year old woman died and you did not. It’s asking about friends you met in the chemo room that you haven’t seen for awhile and finding out that they didn’t make it. It’s hearing about another person who got diagnosed and having your heart sink into your stomach as you think about the journey they are about to embark on and wishing that they didn’t have to go through it all. It’s also talking to many, too many, women who are about to undergo treatment and helping them through their experience as best as you can without feeling helpless.
The new normal is being selfish with the one thing no one has enough of-time. It’s being impatient with people who just “don’t get it” as they argue and are negative about things that really won’t matter 100 years from now. It’s truly understanding the gift of goodbye to people who don’t support you and treat you with respect. Instead you fill your life with people whom you love and care for.
The new normal has helped me rediscover who I am and what I am passionate about. It has given me a better appreciation for the simple things in life like the hugs and kisses from my niece and nephews, completing a good run on the treadmill, playing tennis, cooking for family and friends, a thank you for a job well done from one of your colleagues, and just hanging out around the house. You realize the blessing of a boring day and that quiet time helps restore your mind and body.
The new normal is full of hope and purpose as you struggle to understand what is truly important to you. It’s filled with action, not answers, as you decide not to waste any time on unimportant things, people, and events. It’s about redefining what success means to you as you pursue the things that matter the most. It’s the understanding that time, energy, and money are limited and not to waste any of it. It’s the reason why I pursued a new position at my company doing what I love, on buying a new home, and starting the process of adopting a baby girl from Guatemala. You learn that life goes on and it can be great. Different than what you thought, but still great.
The new normal teaches you that life is full of choices and that you decide each day how you are going to live it. It’s realizing that we possess unlimited potential and that WE stop ourselves from our dreams with negative self-talk and a lack of confidence. We choose our moods, feelings, and actions each moment and I have decided to live each day with optimism and purpose. It means that I am hopeful for the present and the future and that I choose to see only the good in other people and situations. The “realistic” people tell you that you are being naive or a pushover and that your choices aren’t practical. They try to talk you out of your decisions on how to live your life. They ask “Why”? My reply back is “Why not?”
The new normal is truly feeling the unconditional love from your parents, siblings, family, and friends and knowing that you are never alone. That people who you barely knew before your diagnosis stepped up to the plate and helped in any way possible. It restores your faith in people. It makes you appreciate all the unique qualities of each person and to be sure to tell them how special they are.
The new normal knows that once you’ve been through this experience you know you can handle anything. As a result you are less fearful and are more open to taking calculated risks. What’s the worst that can happen, right? You worry less about what people think about you and that it’s okay to sing Broadway show tunes at work or to bluntly tell people what you think of them. And even if things do go wrong or go not as you planned, you learn that this too shall pass and that you only take the time to fix the things you have control over and not worry about the things out of your control. It just wasn’t meant to be.
The new normal has taught me that if all my experiences throughout the past two years has gotten me to the place that I am now; filled with love, purpose, support and in the constant pursuit of my dreams mixed in with some sadness, frustration, and anger then…………
So Be It.
There are some dreams in life even cancer can’t dash. For Michelle Kaplan, that was becoming a mom.
It didn’t matter that she was recently divorce when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 at the age of 37.
“I had eight chemo treatments. I just had my fourth round and I remember I was in that part where you start shutting down around 1 in the afternoon and on this day I just kind of lost it. I just laid down and thought ‘if I get through this, I’m going to be a mom.”
Easier said then done, especially for a single woman now considered a cancer survivor.
“I found out the summer of 2005 – May or June – that the chemo had put me in permanent menopause and that I couldn’t have children of my own,” she said.
Breast cancer treatment had left her mentally, spiritually and physically tired. And then there was the anger of what cancer had robbed from her contained in those nagging, unanswered questions: Why can’t I become a mom? Why is this so difficult for me?
“I got married and always wanted to have kids,” she said. “So after chemo and my diagnosis, I was just pissed.” There were other losses to mourn too – one of three women on the same breast cancer journey died from the disease. “So there was that question of why did I survive and she did not?”
Michelle worked through her breast cancer treatments, something she says she’d do differently if she were to do it again.
Shortly after she finished, “I got a performance review that wasn’t horrible, but it was the worst performance review I’d had. I met 8 out of 10 objectives. But to me, I was busting my ass. I was exhausted and they were totally clueless.
I thought ‘what the hell am I doing? I got angry and decided ‘Enough! I don’t want to be a part of this any more. It’s not acceptable. It was a big wake up call.’”
It was on a business trip around that time that she came across the book The Success Principles by Jack Canfield which gave her the practical steps she needed to take to reach her dream.
“My steps were very specific,” said Michelle. “I decided that to be a mom, I had to get a new job. I had to be financially stable but couldn’t travel as much. I was able to switch jobs in the company. Then I had to get a house.”
On an index card she kept her goals written, along with completion dates. New job by November 1st (she started October 1st); become a mom by May 31, 2007. That one turned out to be a stretch. She adopted her daughter Mia from Guatemala- after being turned away by many other countries because of her breast cancer history – and brought her home July 7, 2007, exactly three years after her breast cancer diagnosis a little more than a month shy of her goal.
“Cancer is my benchmark for everything,” she said, explaining how it’s changed her views in life. “It did give me the strength to say ‘I now know what I want to do.’”
“Before cancer, I always knew what my path was in my heart, .but in my head I would talk myself out of it After cancer, do it.”
Michelle is a life coach and now gives back by teaching classes for cancer survivors who are trying to adjust to their “new normal.”
“Your life is never going to be the same again, even if you’re in the same place so as soon as you realize that the sooner you’ll be able to move on a little quicker.”
Her advice: take some time alone somewhere quiet – the mountains, the beach.
“Ask yourself what you really want in your life and .resolve to pick one thing you absolutely have to have and figure out how to get it in your life And if you don’t know how, well just ask, ask, ask.
Authors note: Michelle wrote an incredible piece describing the “new normal” life after cancer which I have shared in a separate post.
3 Steps to take
1. Take some time alone, preferable in nature, such as the mountains or the beach. Check out Mary’s Place By the Sea, a free retreat house for women cancer patients and survivors in Ocean Grove, NJ.
2. Pick one goal that you absolutely have to accomplish in your life and put together a plan to see it through.
3. When you get stuck or don’t know how to move forward, ask, ask, ask!
The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
After Breast Cancer: A Common Sense Guide to Life After Treatment by Hester Hill Schnipper
As I face life after breast cancer treatment, I find I have more questions than answers about how to move forward. So I’ve decided to refocus my blog to examine the lives of the brilliant, successful, fun and happy women who have gone before me as breast cancer survivors. I have separated out the concrete steps they took to get them to where they are today. I hope to find answers in their experience, strength and hope.
When Sally Creswell was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 1991, she was unemployed, separated and living in an apartment with no furniture.
“In treatment I was just going to get through it. I told myself ‘I can do this.’ But when I was done, no one was watching me. It’s like suddenly you are totally on your own and I was afraid of how my life was changing.”
She was 35 and still wanted children, even though doctors told her not to try, as the high estrogen levels could trigger a recurrence.
“I was feeling a lot of uncertainty for the future, helplessness because I was no longer doing anything,” she said. “There was also some anger about the anxiety I was going through every time I went back for a check up or scan.”
And then there were the unanswered questions: Why me? Will it come back? Will I know if it comes back?
“I had grown up with the message cancer always kills and I was questioning how long I would live, because the statistics were horrible and no one in my immediate family had had it.” Family members added to the anxiety by expressing their fears that this could be her last birthday or last Christmas.
Not only had breast cancer robbed her of a chance to have her own children, but it detoured her career. The company she worked for had gone bankrupt. While she had plenty of lucrative job offers, she had to refuse them in order to undergo breast cancer treatment.
“I felt out of control and that my life would not be the same,” she said.
Still, she started her own business just as she was starting treatment for breast cancer. And that gave her something to focus on as she tried to piece back together her life.
“The first thing I did after treatment was get a higher neck bathing suit. I exercised more and went to the beach a lot,” she said. She found the sound of the waves and the salt air calming.
She also started reassessing her life, her relationships and what she wanted in life.
“I wallowed for a while,” she admitted. “I did not like the person I was after treatment because in my head was the thought that my life was over.”
To pull out of it, she read a lot of self-help books, joined Alanon, journaled, saw a therapist, went on antidepressants for a time and put together a plan.
“I think I journaled some and figured out all the obstacles that were holding me back, where I was unhappiest and decided I had to change those things,” she said. “One thing I decided was that I needed to get out and meet people
“I also think cancer made me realize who my friends were and who they weren’t and that I needed to make better friends and get out of the life I was living.”
Within a year, she had built the business enough to get a mortgage and buy a house in Frenchtown, a small community along the Delaware River. There she got involved in the business association, Alanon and other community groups, where she formed deep, lasting friendships.
Still, there were times fear crept in at night as she tried to sleep. “When I was really anxious, I had a mantra ‘In with the good, out with the bad.’
“What Alanon taught me is that worrying about something you have no control over is just stupid. Exercise, eating well, you can control that. But otherwise, you just have to remember time counts now, so make the best of it. Be good to yourself and every now and then pamper yourself.
These are the steps breast cancer survivor Sally Creswell took to get her life back on track:
1. Make a list of all the obstacles in your life and what you need to do to change them.
2. Get out and make some new friends. Look in the newspaper or go to meetup.com and see if there’s a group you want to get involved in.
3. Find a mantra that works for you in the anxious moments – such as “In with the good (inhaling) and Out with the bad (exhaling).”
These are the books breast cancer survivor Sally Creswell recommends:
Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie
Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie S. Siegel.