Finding a new normal after cancer (or any life event)

A fellow cancer survivor friend recently completed her treatment protocol (yea!) and asked me how to face life after cancer. This started a conversation about the “new normal” after cancer. It generated a swirl of questions and thoughts for me on navigating this journey.

Being diagnosed at 21 years old significantly changed my life, and in some ways, my ‘life’ path (although one could say that we all end up on the path we’re meant to travel). Of course, cancer changes your life, no matter when you’re diagnosed. I have been a cancer survivor almost my entire adult life. I am fortunate, and incredibly grateful, to be alive as a bone cancer and melanoma survivor. I am blessed to walk on my own legs, with a titanium rod in place of the lower part of my left femur and knee. For the past 20 years, every date, career decision, physical activity (and temptation), body ache, and more somehow has my cancer journey woven into the thread of thoughts and decisions. Even when it’s not at the forefront of a conscious thought, there is not a day that goes by when it somehow doesn’t pop in my mind. Being a cancer survivor has definitely created my new normal.

Sitting on the sidelines during physical activities when you used to be ready to try anything. Figuring out how and when to share your health history with a potential significant other. Remembering to schedule medical check ups, figure out co-pays and insurance coverage. Wondering if that ache in a part of your body is something to discuss with your doctor, or simply an everyday ache of life.

I experienced a good dose of my new normal last weekend during a fundraiser. After a few hours of wearing heels while standing on a hard floor, my left leg (with the titanium rod) slowly started throbbing. I iced and elevated when I got home, hoping it would feel better in the morning. Nope, I woke to a lot of aches. So, despite the sunny, mild temps outdoors, I mostly stayed indoors icing my leg and trying to stay off it while convincing myself to stop panicking and remember this was not new. I planned to hike with friends, but decided to decline to let my leg rest. A smart decision, I know, but still disappointing. My leg eventually felt better after a few days. This is part of my new normal.

When I rejoined the dating scene a few years ago, I was reminded of the sometimes awkward, uncomfortable situation of sharing my health history with a potential significant other. While I usually don’t disclose my cancer survivorship on a first date, it’s typically something I bring up earlier than later because of my leg. It’s obviously true that I am open about my health history – I love being an active cancer advocate and helping others so have no problem sharing my story – but there are times that I feel a bit protective about….well, my own health. The reality is that it affects my activities and plans more often than I sometimes want, and I’ve discovered some men don’t want to deal with the limitations. That’s okay. They have a choice in who they date, like I do, and I’d rather not be with that person. This is my new normal.

Having cancer, or experiencing any illness or life event, can alter your life. It often changes your perception on goals, relationships, activities and more. It can be difficult to accept these changes and figure out your new path. Here are a few tips that have helped me over the years.

  • Accept that plans may get changed or sidetracked. I’m a planner so understand the need or desire to keep things organized and on schedule. Cancer or any major life event more than likely will toss your plans a little off course, but that doesn’t mean it won’t turn out awesome. Learn to ‘go with the flow’ a bit.
  • Focus on the activities and plans that you can accomplish. Nothing is too small or simple. So you can’t run a marathon, or maybe run at all (raises hand). Can you bike? Hike? Walk the dog? Yes. Think of other things that you can do, achieve and plan. Not just physical, but in general. And then open your mind to all the new opportunities.
  • Find your people. Cancer survivors and people who accept you for who you are. Open your arms and heart to them. They will be your support, love, laughter and motivation.
  • Acknowledge the possible frustration, sadness, and anger, but also learn to let it go. Don’t hold onto resentment and negative feelings. Life is short. Don’t sacrifice your happiness for anyone or any disease.
  • Find something to tie into your new normal. I decided to embrace my new normal by sharing what I’ve learned and experienced as a cancer survivor. I share my cancer story and lessons by writing, speaking at events, mentoring others and more. You don’t have to do quite so much. My point is to think of the positive and opportunities that your new normal brought to you.
  • Take it day by day. Someone recently told me to focus on the next 10 seconds. Then the next 10 seconds, and so on. This helps release expectations, anxiety and over-thinking (who me?). There is no crystal ball to tell you how to behave or what to do. You survived this life altering event. Enjoy it. When you find joy and love, embrace them tightly. Live in the moment.
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