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Adopting a New Normal after Cancer

by Kathleen McBeth, MA

Author of Article photo

Kathleen McBeth

After my doctor told me I had cancer, the rest of the visit was a blur. I was told that I would eventually discover a “new normal,” but this concept was lost on me. I just wanted to have my old normal back.

Despite the addition of frequent doctor’s appointments and trips to and from treatment, I tried to maintain my pre-cancer routine. After finishing treatment, I went to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist. Through my focus on working with cancer sur­vivors, I found that many people shared my aversion to adopting a new normal. However, as I learned from my own cancer experience, some lifestyle modifications are necessary.

Having cancer is a full-time job. In addition to enduring the actual cancer treatments, your tasks include regaining a sense of normalcy and finding new ways to carry out essential daily activi­ties. For many of the people I work with, this adjustment takes a few tries. We may cry, grieve, or get angry, and then finally we focus on what needs to happen with our oncology treatment and our emotional well-being.

The first 100 days post-diagnosis is often a time of heightened activity. For many survivors, this is also a time of shock and emotional numbness. This initial sense of emotional disconnect actually protects you as you face sur­gery or the beginning of chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Once the shock wears away, you become more aware of the difficulty of your situation, and you eventually have to deal with the emotions you were previously numb to. These feel­ings shouldn’t be ignored. There are many avenues of coping with these difficult emotions, and it’s important to find the ones that are most helpful for you.

Having cancer is a full-time job.

Uncovering coping mechanisms that have worked for you in the past is a good place to start. Was finding a distraction, such as visiting with friends, going to a movie, or lis­tening to music, helpful? Have you tried mindfulness techniques like meditation or visualization? Does it help to talk about your distress with family members, friends, or medical professionals?

Being able to recognize that you’ve found ways to cope with challenges in the past, and you can use these same methods to help you get through your current situation is often helpful. Learn­ing new strategies, such as taking a yoga class, joining a support group, or journal­ing can be effective tools.

Adjusting to a new normal after cancer treatment requires you to think about how you lived your life in the past, as well as how you want to live it going forward. Are you willing to take a step toward living fully by focusing on what you have now instead of what you would like to have in the fu­ture? For many the focus is to make the best of your relationships and build new ones.

Many of the survivors I work with say that cancer has taught them to live in the present. This statement is very helpful when you are concerned about whether your treatment is work­ing or anxiously awaiting the results of your latest scan – focus on the present moment. Relish the time you spend with friends. Delight in the laughter of your children or grandchildren. Savor the sensation of cool rain falling onto your skin.

In 2013, when I was diagnosed with cancer for a second time, I didn’t spend time asking “why me?” and clinging to my now-old new normal. Instead, I gathered my support system – my medical team, my family, my friends, my books, and my sense of purpose – and I enlisted the help of coping strategies that got me through my first round with cancer. Prepared to accept and adapt to another new normal, all I needed to do was remind myself that I could pick up the tools I found so helpful in the past and utilize new strategies when necessary.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kathleen McBeth is a two-time cancer survivor and a clinical psychologist at the Vermont Cancer Center in Burlington, VT.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.