This past weekend my husband and I attended a first birthday party for an adorable little girl who belongs to two of our university friends. While there, we caught up with more friends from our undergraduate days. I was particularly excited to see Julie*. Julie had battled cancer in her mid-twenties, only a few years before me. When I was diagnosed I reached out to her and found that she could empathize like no one else in my support team. During treatment, Julie would respond to my emotional texts with thoughtful guidance. To this day I continue to rely on her wisdom.
While devouring the birthday cupcakes at the party, Julie asked, “when did you start to feel normal again?”
I laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Not because it was a stupid question, on the contrary, it was a question no one thinks to ask. I’ve found that most people expected me to be better the minute I was done treatment. I can’t really blame them. I too naively believed that I’d be better in no time. No one warned me that recovery would take a very long time.
“I didn’t feel normal for about two years,” I said shamefully.
I didn’t lie but this was only partly true since I am still anxiously awaiting a complete return to normal. Not only am I a fully qualified health professional but I am also young, healthy, and active. This healing thing was taking a very long time and I was ashamed to reveal the absolute truth.
Julie sighed deeply then said, “Thank-you! Thank-you for saying that. To be completely honest, I still don’t feel normal.”
She rushed her confession as if she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. She was eager to tell someone how much she’d been struggling. We continued to share stories of our protracted recoveries. Wondering aloud when we would feel totally normal again, if ever.
Normalcy after cancer is almost impossible to define; it’s more of a feeling that arrives when you forget you were ever ill.
In the beginning of my recovery, it was impossible to forget how sick I felt. As the months progressed I’d get caught up while doing things like watching a good movie, laughing at the dog, or playing with my nephews. Only after these moments did I remember how shitty I felt and it dawned on me that for a brief period of time I had forgotten. I had felt normal.
The further from treatment the longer the periods of normalcy lasted. Some days I’d have a few hours where I actually felt like myself.
Then, just when it seemed like I was really improving I’d have a setback. My symptoms would return. Pain flares. Nausea and vomiting. Trips to the emergency room. This would lead to more investigations: CT scans, scopes, and specialist visits. It was hard to feel normal while sitting in an emergency room with a morphine drip dressed in a hospital gown. After these flares settled down the healing pattern would repeat. Once again, I would feel the relief of forgetting.
Julie had been through numerous chemo treatments that changed her body and drained her energy. Despite feeling crummy she pushed to return to a normal life. She went back to a busy (and very stressful) career and even started dating again. It was all a bit too much too soon. At the birthday party, Julie admitted to needing a break because she had been overdoing it. Unfortunately, pretending to be normal doesn’t make it so.
After cancer, it is hard to find a balance between forging ahead or slowing down. What feels right in one moment can feel awful in the next. There were times when I was so bored and eager that I would have done anything to feel productive again. But there were also times when my fatigue demanded a blanket, a couch, a bag of chips, and ten episodes of Jane the Virgin. Most frustratingly, I couldn’t just decide to move on and leave cancer behind. It was stuck with me and I was stuck in healing limbo.
In our short catch up, Julie and I gave each other permission to keep healing. It felt wonderful to have it even though we didn’t need it.
I guess feeling normal takes time and as it turns out, that’s normal too.
* Name changed