Reshaping your New Normal after cancer

The New Normal after cancer is harder than you might expect. Goals of leading a healthier, more balanced life can be difficult to achieve as you adjust to the sand that shifted under your feet, writes Natasha Whelehan.

Photo by Brannon Naito on Unsplash

I won’t lie, getting breast cancer was a shock to the system, to put it mildly! Cancer dropped a grenade in the middle of my life and took me places physically and mentally I never expected to go at 39 years of age. However it also got me thinking about my life and how I was living it.

Prior to my diagnosis, I suffered from anxiety and lived in a world of worry, stress, concern over what others thought of me, worry about the future, fear I wasn’t good enough, not a good enough mum, wife or friend. I had a tendency to overthink, focus on the past and the future instead of the ‘right now’. I would think, ‘It’ll all be great when x happens’. Then I got cancer and all of a sudden that future I worried so much about became something I desperately hoped I would actually get to have.

I spent a lot of time during those months of surgery, chemo and radiotherapy thinking about this and resolved to make changes when I completed active treatment.

I decided I was going to be the healthiest version of myself I could possibly be, I was going to overhaul mine and my family’s diet, give up sugar and caffeine, start meditating and exercise regularly. I was going to be more present and enjoy every moment with my kids, say ‘Yes’ more to new experiences and be less concerned about what other people thought of me. I was going to emerge from this experience a brighter, better version of the woman who went in. At least that’s what I told myself.

Fast forward a year and I’ll be honest, I didn’t make many of the changes I planned to. Recovery and finding a new normal was tougher than I had anticipated. I started mindfulness but did not develop the regular practice I had planned to. The running stopped, the yoga petered out after I developed lymphoedema.

I made some resolutions at the start of 2019, and got off to a good start, but a hospital stay at the beginning of February threw me off course and I didn’t go back to the list now languishing in my notebook.

I tell myself it’s no big deal, but deep down I am frustrated with myself. I find myself irritated with the kids when we are rushing out the door because no one is ready and I can’t find my keys. Getting more organised was one of my resolutions! Then I feel guilty for getting angry and frustrated because they are my kids, my whole world and I had cancer, a life threatening disease. I should treasure the time with them. Plus on a deeper level I now have a little voice whispering at me to relax, don’t get stressed, you know stress is unhealthy, why are you getting worked up, you need to relax and be healthy so the cancer doesn’t come back! So many things that seem minor on the surface can lead me back to cancer in the blink of an eye.

Yet it’s morning and I can’t find my keys, my son is still putting on his shoes 15 minutes after I asked him, my daughter hates her dress and is trying to take it off and we’re late… AGAIN!

The reality is in hindsight I put myself under pressure when I finished treatment. I had all of these ideas in my head about the changes I was going to make, how I was going to seize every moment and be the best version of myself I could be. Because I survived. I’m one of the lucky ones. I felt in some ways like I had been given a second chance. I was determined that instead of thinking about the things I would do at some future date when I had ‘more time’, I would do them now because I am acutely aware that we all have a finite period of time and that this future day when I have ‘more time’ could actually be right now, today.

Finding my New Normal after cancer wasn’t easy. The road was longer and bumpier than I had expected it to be. Yet here I am, one year down the road and finally at a point where I feel it’s time to focus on the future; time to focus on taking ownership of my new normal and shaping the lifestyle I want.

There is a wonderful article on Happy Magazine which references the poem Invictus. I love this poem and oddly it was also my ‘superpower’ when I was in hospital for mastectomy. I chanted the first stanza over and over to myself as they wheeled me down for surgery. On that day I needed to focus on my ‘unconquerable soul’ and the words gave me courage.

I think of it again today as I look to the future and start to think about taking ownership of my normal and making positive changes for the future.

However instead of the first stanza, now my thoughts go to the last stanza and these lines:

‘I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul’

Cancer is a thief, it steals away our sense of security, our trust in our bodies, in ourselves and even in our future. However it also brought into sharp focus that this is my one and only life and if I want to change things then only I can do that.

So where to start?

I have always loved self help books. I’ve read many over the years. I’ve read books telling me how to change my life, how to fix my life, how to be happy, how to be less stressed, how to be more relaxed, how to be more organised. Books on relationships. Books on diet. The list goes on.

I read them but rarely follow the advice, I’ll be honest!

However, I recently listened to ‘The 4 Pillar Plan’ by Dr Rangan Chatterjee which I loved and am an avid listener of his podcast Feel Better, Live More. His approach of making small changes that build on each other really resonates with me. Instead of diving straight in and trying to change EVERYTHING at once, I am going to pick different areas of my life and aim to make cumulative changes that I feel will be of benefit to me and my family.

The first of these is managing stress and anxiety. I am currently weaning off my antidepressants (with my doctor’s supervision) and am keenly aware that managing my levels of stress and anxiety going forward is important.

I have read a lot on meditation and it’s proven benefits for mental health. Yet despite all my previous intentions to establish a regular practice I have not yet committed to it. I downloaded HeadSpace and signed up… but that was 2 months ago. I told myself that it’s ok, that sometimes life gets in the way. Or I am too tired, or too busy or as crazy as it sounds, too stressed to take on something new!

However as the poem says ‘I am the master of my fate’.

So with that in mind I am going to set myself a goal of establishing a meditation practice and morning routine over the next month (an idea I am taking from Dr Chatterjee!). I plan to use the HeadSpace App and follow their Getting Started course in the Meditation Essentials section of the App. There are lots of options online, this is just the one I have chosen to use. There may be something else you would prefer to follow.

If anyone wants to join me for 30 days of meditation then I’ll be up at 6am Monday… otherwise I’ll update you all on how it goes and the impact it is has, be it positive (hopefully), negative (hopefully not!) or if it actually has any impact at all on me personally; over the coming weeks!

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