I confess I’ve always been troubled by the phrase “new normal”.
After cancer, a “new normal” is often held up as what you want. Things will be OK when you get used to your “new normal”.
To me, “new normal” sounds like a consolation prize.
Let’s be honest: cancer can bring a lot of loss. It can literally mean loss of body parts, or body function. It can bring grief and loss on the level of relationships. It can bring about loss of progress or status at work. And it can certainly bring about financial loss.
“New normal” says to me that the goal is to adapt to the devastation, to make do with some fraction of your prior life among the ruins. This is the way it is now. Get used to it.
Hearing that saps the energy out of me.
Life after cancer can certainly be challenging. You may wish you could go back to when life seemed predictable, when you could assume each day would look like the next unless you decided otherwise.
Cancer changed that, didn’t it?
If you’re like most people, your cancer diagnosis was unexpected. Before you could think it through, the course of your life was redefined. Any plans you had were put on hold as you were shunted into a rigorous routine of appointments and treatments.
There may have been a temporary blessing in that rigorous routine. Just as your world was falling apart, you were offered a firm structure for your next weeks and a network of dedicated professionals to guide you through.
Then treatment ended. That medical structure and support moved on to the next new patient. Your loved ones, happy you made it through, figured things would get back to ‘normal’ now.
You were wondering if things would ever be ‘normal’ again.
Here’s what was normal: any fear, confusion, anxiety, shock or grief you experienced (or may still be experiencing). Because if you’re like most people, what you experienced was trauma.
Trauma is an event that upends your assumptions about how the world works. Those assumptions made life seem safe and predictable. Without them, you’re no longer sure who you are, or what power you have to determine the course of your life.
No wonder you experienced confusion, anxiety, shock or grief: those are normal responses to the loss of your guiding assumptions. They’re just what we’d expect after someone’s world’s been blown apart.
Unfortunately, this emotional pattern is still rarely acknowledged (“Be happy you’re alive! Time to move on!”) or effectively supported. When support is offered, the message seems to be “well, let’s make the best of what’s left.”
I recently came across an image that explains this so well. Picture a tall building on prime real estate, that has safely housed its residents for years. One day, an earthquake shakes the building to its foundation. The building sustains enough damage that it’s no longer safe to live in.
Would we leave the residents to live among the rubble? I hope not.
Would we rebuild the building exactly as it was before? If I lived there, I’d live in fear that the next earthquake could cost me my life.
If we believe in the value of the location and we care about the quality of the residents’ lives, we’d want to learn from the damage caused by the trauma, and use what we learn when we build the new structure. It won’t be the same building as before, nor should it be. It will be a beautifully upgraded, more resilient version of the original.
And there’s the opportunity of life after cancer. The impact of cancer’s physical and emotional changes can’t be denied; yet you’re not meant to be rebuilt exactly as you were, nor live as less than you are. Though the changes came unexpectedly, they may yield up secrets about how to become a stronger, more peaceful, more resilient version of you.
That’s the only version of “new normal” that I’d wish for you. In fact, I’d call it a “new extraordinary”. And there’s no reason you can’t get there, if you choose to.
I’ll be talking more about how you can move towards a “new extraordinary”. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you, so comment below:
- What does “new normal” mean to you?
- Does “new normal” describe what you’re looking for as a cancer survivor? If not, how would you describe it?
Talk with Dr. Shani
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