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Finding Your New Normal After Breast Cancer

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My mother used to say “normal is what you think you are, and no one else is.” For each one of us, “normal” changes as we age. Our 16-year-old self is different from our 26 or 46- year-old self. From a visual perspective it’s easy to look at old photos of what we were wearing, or how we did our hair, and approximate our age. However, aging is more than a physical process. We mature mentally and emotionally as well, and with each new chapter of our lives, we redefine what our normal is.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to twirl a baton and be the daughter of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West. Every Saturday I was happy to share in their television adventures, marveling at the intelligence of Roy’s horse, Trigger, and the gentleness of Dale’s horse, Buttermilk. By the time I was in my teens, I felt out of place, the only one of my peers who had a mother to take care of at home. I made good grades and fixed dinner, but I was like a mannequin in a store window: head cocked to one side, arms up expectantly, waiting for what, I didn’t know. Normalcy, perhaps.

As the years went by, different window dressers changed my hair and put me in different outfits, but for the most part, I laid naked and in pieces in the storeroom, unable to become a whole person. From time to time, I got dressed and beamed, “fine thank you, and how are you,” but my feelings didn’t go any deeper. I was a well-dressed mannequin in a storefront window, wearing pastels in the spring, a summer sundress and then a coordinated sweater set to ward off winter’s chill. All the while, my gaze was fixed, and I had the smile of a one-dimensional doll.

Mannequins do not shed tears or feel exhilarating joy. They have cut off their highs and lows, living somewhere in the middle in their safe storefront window. As I matured, I experienced the death of that hollow woman and reveled in the occasional tears as they streamed down my face and felt the emotional catch in the back of my throat that had never been there before. I stopped caring what others would think if I told them who I was, if I said no, and became a wholly formed three-dimensional woman.

Time and life experiences shape the person we become, and breast cancer is one of those experiences. The person who emerges on the other side is admittedly a different person than the one who began this breast cancer journey. When we look back on these different versions of ourselves, we see that “normal” is a relative thing. It is who we are and how we handle now that matters most. To assume we will go back to “normal” when we’re finished with breast cancer treatment is unrealistic.

Yes, there may be things about this time in our lives we’re not crazy about: I wish my body was full of estrogen, my libido was what it used to be, and my facial muscles didn’t look like they’d melted in the noon day’s sun, but like it or not, this is my new normal. I can’t mourn for my former self any more than I mourn for my six-year-old self. I have grown and changed as a result of breast cancer. More importantly, I’m still here to live my life. So when my husband says, “Don’t you remember? We talked about that the other day,” I just smile and say, “Chemo brain, Honey Bunny. It’s part of my new normal.”