I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at 29. February,2015 will be 27 years from the time of my first diagnosis. I have spent almost half my life battling breast cancer.
“Finding your new normal” is one of those popular buzz phrases spoken by oncologists, counsellors, and other cancer survivors. I’ve always felt that this word was like a password to a secret clubhouse that everyone in Cancerland belongs to except for me. Although I know this password, I am obviously missing something that would allow me to gain entry. Maybe a special knock or a secret handshake is also required. While I can spout the phrase “new normal” without difficulty, I’ve never quite understood how those words applied to my life.
If we uttered the phrase “changes to your life” due to cancer, I could easily relate to that. I could draw up a long list of the ways my life changed with the first diagnosis,the first and second mastectomy,the bad reconstruction job,the repeated bouts of cancer,and the discovery that I lived for 16 years under the illusion I was BRCA negative when in fact I was BRCA1 positive all the time.
Maybe I have problems relating to the word “normal”. The changes that happened to my mind, body, and emotions were anything but “normal” as we usually think of the term. Losing my breasts, lymph nodes,fertility,and ovaries may be normal for BRCA positive cancer survivors and previvors but there is nothing normal about that in terms of the population at large. Being diagnosed with 3 separate breast cancers at 29, 34,and 36 is statistically improbable in the breast cancer world. Having a fourth breast cancer at 52 puts me into a rare category that very few breast cancer patients attain (or would want to attain). Top that off with all 4 cancers being of the triple negative variety (not influenced by hormones) which is a reasonably rare breast cancer, and there is very little that is normal about my world.
If we are talking about acknowledging that these things happened to me and that they form part of my present reality, I can do that. Have I fully accepted, embraced, and integrated these changes into my life in a positive and life-affirming manner? Uh no. Although I can be happy and positive much of the time, I am not happy that I had to go through these events at such a young age. I’m also not happy that I had to have my cancer come back over and over and over again. This is my life, this is my reality, this is my world but there is nothing normal about it. And there is little I can do to normalize my experiences so that they make some sort of sense in the context of the rest of my life.
I try to think back to what my old normal was. I was an only child who spent the first 12 years of her childhood growing up in a typical suburban neighborhood. My parents and I attended Baptist church every Sunday and my parents were complete tee-totalers. This “normal” existence underwent a dramatic change in 8th grade when my father went from complete tee-totaler to a full blown raging alcoholic and valium addict in the course of one year. My world was completely turned upside down and I had no idea how to deal with this “new normal”. My father’s alcoholism progressed with great speed and his moods veered between sickeningly sentimental and raging mad, with very little in between. My lifelong battle with anxiety and depression started in the 8th grade and progressively got worse throughout high school.
My mother felt the best way to protect me was to get me out of the house as soon as I graduated high school. We lived in a university town so we planned to find a major that wasn’t offered locally. We hit on Criminology as it was only available 1000 miles a way. Not the best way to plan for your future education, but it achieved its purpose and I was able to leave home at 17.
The next 12 years were the college and early employment years. I attained my BA in Criminology, gained some work experience as a probation officer, went back to university to complete law school and spent a grueling year articling (similar to interning) with a large law firm in Vancouver. I had dated widely, fallen madly in love at least twice, broken a few hearts and had mine broken in return. I never doubted that I would have a law career or that I would marry and raise a family. Those were the fun years filled with plans, hopes, and dreams about the future. After the chaos of growing up in an alcoholic home, I loved my fun filled yet hard working “new normal”.
On the eve of my entry into the legal profession, I had my first cancer diagnosis. It changed me in ways that still affect me today. The career was put on hold. The doctors said no pregnancies for 5 years or else I would die, so marriage and a family were put on hold as well. Although I only had a lumpectomy and radiation, I developed major body image issues as I knew no one even remotely in my age group who had a weird looking mismatched breast. I became shy about dating, not knowing when to break it to them that I had undergone breast cancer treatment. So dating was also put on hold. Fear,anxiety,and social unease became my constant companions after that first diagnosis and continue to haunt me today. Is this considered my first experience with cancer’s “new normal”?
I still believed that being cancer free for 5 years meant you were cured. Over that first 5 year period, I did launch my law career and began dating again. I was offered a promotion and a move to a new city hours before I went for my 5 year mammogram. I told my employer that I would be back shortly, that this mammogram was just a formality, as all prior mammograms had been clear. Unfortunately for me, this mammogram showed cancer again and a mastectomy and 9 months of chemotherapy were my only options. Good-bye promotion. Good-bye new city. And the 5 year no pregnancy rule started from scratch all over again.
I was off work for 18 months. I had lost my last illusion about being cured of cancer. Where the first cancer had brought fear and self-doubt into my life, the second cancer brought a kind of craziness. The world which I always believed was a fair and orderly place, became chaotic and events seemed completely random. Whether I lived or died seemed completely out of my control. Any plans I tried to make for my future seemed to be quashed as soon as they were made. It was clear that there were many things my oncologists did not know, many questions they could not answer. I felt a lot of confusion. It seemed that whenever fate was about to give me a big break, cancer re-entered the picture to turn my dreams to dust. Was this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness my “new normal” for my second cancer?
I had reconstruction surgery which looked bad even from the start. Even doctors and nurses at the Cancer Clinic would comment that I should see another plastic surgeon to try to fix it. My breast resembled a lumpy flattened pancake but as it had taken a long time to heal, I wasn’t eager to go under the knife again. My body image issues and self-consciousness grew considerably worse.
18 months after returning to work, a new cancer was found in the remaining breast. I had a new surgeon who said doctors had recently abandoned the 5 year pregnancy rule and that if I wanted a child, I should hurry up as I was already 36 and could have early ovarian failure due to the chemotherapy. I got married and we soon found ourselves at a fertility clinic. 2 rounds of IVF were unsuccessful so we formulated a Plan B. We started the adoption process and a year later, we had a handsome baby boy. 16 months after that, we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl.
I took one of the early BRCA tests and was declared BRCA negative. Life was good. Until one day it wasn’t. The marriage imploded, I was blindsided,and I was left as a single Mom to a 22 month old toddler and a six month old baby. Once again, my hopes and dreams were shattered and life seemed as random and arbitrary as it had during my second cancer.
The years went by, the kids kept growing, and the cancer stayed away. After 16 cancer free years, the cancer came back. I was looking at another mastectomy and more chemotherapy. Only this time around, there were children involved, ages 9 and 11. This time I really was afraid of dying as I didn’t want them to lose their mother at such young ages. The kids were scared too but wouldn’t really say so. My son wanted me to appear as normal as possible and not look like a cancer patient. He wanted me in a wig and full make-up 24/7 (didn’t happen). My daughter would feel sick with vague symptoms on chemo days or oncology visits. She wanted to accompany me to all these appointments as that seemed to make her feel more secure. It was another crazy hysterical chaotic year but we muddled through it somehow.
After cancer 4, I was encouraged to retake the BRCA test as it was now looking at things it hadn’t looked for originally. Suddenly, I was BRCA1 positive and at high risk for ovarian cancer. There was a great rush to have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as soon as possible.
With Cancer 4, I became a bit of a medical curiosity given that I was BRCA1 positive, had an aggressive grade of an aggressive cancer, and had survived for so long without the cancer metastasizing outside my breasts. At work,things were looked at somewhat differently. Between the cancers and the 2 adoption leaves, my coworkers saw me as someone who was rarely at work. The office atmosphere was decidedly chilly upon my return from Cancer 4. My self-esteem was plummeting, I still had side effects from chemo brain, and I started feeling incompetent in a job I had held for 25 years. A year ago, I took a medical leave and have since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
My “newest new normal” now has a mixed diagnosis of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. I no longer plan too far ahead for fear of jinxing any happy days that lay ahead. I worry about my children’s future – who will love them and look after them if I am gone? At the same time, I am forever grateful that I get to be their Mom. I try to live each day as if it may be my last.
Is this the “new normal” everyone talks about? Is it some combination of hard lessons learned and the feeling of walking on a trapeeze with no safety net underneath? The feeling that my luck will once again run out and I will be forced to take another spin on the Cancer Roulette Wheel of Fortune? Is it all those scary feelings combined with a fierce protective love for my children that keeps me going forward each day?
What does the “new normal” of cancer feel like to you? Have I completely missed the boat on this one? Is it supposed to be a positive thing or a negative thing? I really would like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Sharon Greene January 15, 2015