Breast cancer survivor Natasha Whelehan writes for us today about reaching the milestone of one year after treatment and asks what ‘normal’ really is.
So you’ve reached the finish line. It’s your last day of active treatment. Soon you can walk out that door and start ‘getting back to normal’, right?
But what is normal really?
Everyone’s normal is different. We all have our issues, worries, problems, insecurities. We all have things happening in our lives. Our experience of these things, how we integrate these things into our daily lives and how we perceive them are unique to us. We all live in our own version of normal and that version is constantly evolving. Sometimes change happens slowly, over time, other times it happens in the blink of an eye.
For me, that blink of an eye occured on 27 June 2017 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This time last year, I had already had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and was nearing the end of radiotherapy. I was bald, sick and scared. I was also still a mum of two young kids, still a wife, still a daughter. Yet everything had changed.
Cancer threw me into a totally new version of normal. The change was instant. It affected everyone I cared about. I went through surgery, chemo and radiotherapy before starting on hormone therapy. It was tough on me, tough on my family and on my kids, but we did it, we got through.
When you finish cancer treatment everyone just wants to get back to normal. The reality is your life has changed and the life you lived before cancer is unlikely to be the one you return to.
You see when cancer comes into your world, a door closes. As soon as the diagnosis is confirmed, it slams shut. Even as I was preparing friends and family for the fact that the the biopsy was likely to be positive there was still a part of me that clung onto some tiny hope that it would be a mistake, that I would be ok. And then the doctor said it, ‘We have a problem with this breast’…and the door slammed shut. Life as I knew it would never be that version of normal again no matter how much I desperately wished it was, no matter how much I longed to go back to that time when a headache was just a headache and a sore leg after a run was just shin splints… and not cancer.
Hence the term, ‘New Normal’ is likely to be one you start to hear more and more around this time.
I finished active treatment on 27 February 2018. This week marks one year since I walked out of the hospital with a medical status of NED (No Evidence of Disease), 1 year cancer free, 1 year since I started on my journey towards a New Normal.
For me, those first few weeks and months after completing treatment were difficult. On the outside, I looked fine. I had eyebrows again! My hair was growing back. We moved house. I did the school run. All normal things. People asked me was I delighted to be finished, was I happy I had ‘beaten it’. I tried to be positive and upbeat, focus on the relief that the treatment was done and how happy I was to get back to ‘normal’.
The reality is, inside I was a scared, terrified mess. I had started hormone treatment. Tamoxifen and Zoladex for me. My body was adjusting to the medication and I was wrestling with side effects. The physical effects were frustrating (sore feet, stiff joints, hot flushes) but overall they were manageable. The hardest part for me was what was going on in my head.
My old friend anxiety was well and truly back and had brought along a friend; The Fear. Fear of recurrence, of having to do it all again, fear that if it came back, we wouldn’t catch it in time.
Every ache and pain brought fear. I had developed very painful inflammation in my torso and my ribs were sore following radiotherapy. I also had chronic back pain. A spine MRI ruled out cancer. My oncologist said it was side effects of my treatment and ultimately I needed to stay on my treatment plan.
Insomnia became a huge problem. I’ve experienced bouts of ongoing insomnia at various stages during my adult life but this was a whole new level. I could barely function some days. I felt tearful, angry, anxious, filled with rage one moment and so desperately tired the next.
I tried sleeping pills. A small dose to start. Then a higher dose. They made me feel foggy. I drank coffee. My sleep got worse. My fatigue increased.
I quit the sleeping pills. The insomnia got even worse. I was getting 2 to 3 hours sleep at most per night. I read several books on insomnia in an attempt to figure out a solution. Tried yoga, mindfulness, developed a solid bedtime routine, went for counselling. I already exercised regularly but around this time I started running again. Every time I went for a run I cried. It was a release.
It was summer by now. The fatigue and anxiety were becoming overwhelming. I went to my GP for help and started back on antidepressants. They kicked in, my anxiety levelled off. My sleep improved. Blood tests revealed I was anemic. Iron supplements helped with the tiredness. My body was adjusting to my hormone therapy.
Things began to get easier. When I said I felt good I meant it.
I was still open about my illness, and never shied away from the fact that I was still undergoing hormone treatment. But I didn’t really open up fully about the emotional impact of the disease or how difficult I was finding things.
The reality is, some days I felt lonelier than when I was in treatment. It is in many ways harder to show fear and express anxiety around recurrence when people think you’re fully recovered. I desperately wanted to be normal again. I hated that when my back hurt or I got a headache my mind instantly raced straight to ‘It’s cancer’. I was frustrated that when I did anything particularly strenuous, my arm ached as a result of the lymph node clearance a year before. I often felt like I was somewhere between 2 worlds, one foot firmly planted in Cancerland, the other in Normal.
Then I slowly started to realise that this actually IS my new normal. Every day, every moment that I am here is part of my normal, part of my story. Some days are good, some not so good. Some days my back hurts, my feet ache, I have sore ribs and I feel exhausted. These are side effects of my treatment. They are normal. Other days the kids drive me mad and I feel like I’m drowning in laundry. This is normal too, it’s part of being a mammy. It’s all part of MY normal.
You see while this last 12 months has not been easy, it has also been filled with wonderful moments. Taking my kids on holidays to my mum for a week, watching them chase her dog around the garden, play dates in the park with friends, eating ice creams and lazing around enjoying the hot summer days. My little boy graduated from preschool and I was there. He started primary school and I was there. My daughter started preschool and I was there. My husband and I finally went for the long-planned meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant that once upon a time had been our plan for my 40th. I turned 41, a year older, something in and of itself to be grateful for.
Today I look like every other mum on the school run. I look ‘normal’.
Which takes me back to my question: What is normal?
For me normal is getting up every morning and popping my prosthetic into my bra, taking the pill that will hopefully block my oestrogen in an attempt to stop my cancer coming back, putting on my lymphoedema compression sleeve, then grabbing breakfast and starting the morning rush. I have monthly injections to suppress my ovaries, attend physio for my back and a lymphoedema specialist for my arm. I get my Zometa infusions twice a year.
Some days I still find it hard to look too far ahead. When people talk about the future and our kids all heading off backpacking or to college or even secondary school I struggle to visualise it without thinking ‘Please God, just let me make it’. I can’t wait to turn 60 because by then my kids will be adults and I’ll have achieved what has become my primary goal in life: Raise my kids.
However I also make lunches, rush to school, watch movies, drink coffee, chat with friends. I like a good night out, a glass of wine, a good book… and shopping! I love to shop!
Cancer is still a part of my life, and I have accepted that. It has become part of my life, part of our family’s routine, it is part of our normal.
I’ve always liked a poem by Robert Frost. And these lines in particular have often popped into my head since I started on my cancer journey:
‘Two roads diverged in the woods, and I,
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference’.
I am one year out from treatment. I still have moments where I am gripped by a fear so strong I can barely breathe. But I am HERE and that is what counts. I am here and today as I type this, the sun is shining, the daffodils my mum planted in our garden while I was in treatment are blooming and there are buds on the trees. Spring time; new life; a sign of new beginnings. I’m not sure I would have even noticed these things properly before my illness.
To anyone walking out the door on the last day of treatment, eager to get back to normal; be kind to yourself, give yourself time and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. Do what you need to do to find your new normal. It doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. No two people are the same. No two people are living the same life. Our normal is as unique as we are, as unique as the cancers we each battled and the path we have all followed to bring us here to this point in time.
It may feel like you are on the road less traveled, but as difficult as it is, it can be a road where you find joy in the small things and develop a greater appreciation for what truly matters to you.
And that really will make all the difference.