Coming to Terms with Your New Normal
by Deborah Seagull, PhD
A man came into my office after a diagnosis of neck cancer and said to me, “I miss Matt. I miss the old Matt.” He said that cancer had profoundly changed the way he saw himself and the world. He felt that he could not do ordinary things or focus on small talk the way he used to, regular chores and activities had lost their meaning, and he was unsure about what was fulfilling to him these days.
Matt’s feelings are common for cancer survivors. Life changes rapidly after you’re diagnosed. Days that were filled with just regular activities are now quickly packed with surgery, endless doctors’ appointments, chemotherapy, and radiation. It can be shocking how different your life is from what it used to be. Life can feel consumed with cancer, and traces of your old life may seem far gone.
This is normal. When faced with the enormity of a cancer diagnosis, everything changes. It’s important to acknowledge these changes so that cancer does not take over your life and your identity.
Be gentle with yourself, regardless of what you are feeling.
Experience the Emotions
One of the most crucial elements for effective coping is to allow yourself room to truly feel any difficult emotions that arise. Try not to force yourself to feel grateful or happy, or anything at all, right off the bat. Instead, allow yourself time and compassion to experience what you are going through. Recognize your need for acknowledgment, healing, and kindness. Be gentle with yourself, regardless of what you are feeling.
No matter your stage of cancer or your prognosis, you may still feel a need to grieve. As Matt said, he missed his old self and his old life. You won’t ever go back to being a person who never had cancer, and that is something to grieve, despite the outcome. Allow yourself time to cry, to journal, and to express your emotions. These difficult feelings will pass, and in time, you will feel ready to accept your “new life.”
Take Care of Yourself
Remember that you have been through a lot. Get enough rest. Do your best to eat well and do things you enjoy. But know that you won’t always be able to care for yourself perfectly, and that’s OK.
It is common to have anxiety about the future. Scans, birthdays, or anniversaries may be particularly nerve wracking. When you’re sick or have an ache, your first thought may be cancer. Although almost every survivor struggles with these fears, it can be helpful to remember that you do have a certain level of control over your health. Think about your eating habits, the treatments you have undergone, and how you are doing all you can to help combat feelings of worry.
Your relationship with your doctor is crucial. If you are concerned about anything, call your doctor. Don’t let your fear stop you. During routine visits, communicate with your physician and ask the questions that are on your mind. More likely than not, your doctor will give you reassurance.
If you are a social person, it can be so important to talk to others who have cancer. Your family and friends love and support you, but they might not have a deep understanding of what you feel. Their desire for you to be OK may make it hard for them to truly “get it.” Others in a similar situation can provide tremendous relief and support, which will naturally make you feel less alone.
Cancer may make you question all kinds of things. You certainly would not have wished for this diagnosis, but you can learn from it. You might challenge your ideas about how you want to live your life, change jobs, deepen your friendships, or become more grateful for the life you do have – perhaps not right away, but eventually. I hope you will find that your old normal and your new normal can come together in a way that brings you acceptance, peace, and joy.
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Dr. Deborah Seagull is a licensed clinical psychologist who works at The Joan Karnell Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. She works intensively with cancer survivors and their families to improve coping and overall well-being.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.