If you haven’t read Becky’s post, ‘I Miss Me’, please go give it a read! It hits so close to home for me personally, but honestly for so many survivors. Cancer lingers. It lingers in ways that I never imagined. The moment treatment is finished, the common perception is you are suddenly cured and life will go back to normal. Life is never normal again after cancer. Trust me, I’ve really tried to buy into the ‘new normal’ world view and sometimes I even believe it, but it just isn’t. This is not normal. It is not normal to spend everyday wondering if your cancer is growing again, patiently waiting for your hair to grow back, takings naps during your lunch break, losing your phone or keys on the reg, or getting cozy with MRI machines and blood draws.
For me, the most devastating piece of my diagnosis is the changes to my basic brain functioning. While I did both radiation and chemotherapy, I truly believe the 7 weeks of radiation (and that minor craniotomy) to my brain is what did me in. Another common misnomer is that a surgical team can physically extract the tumor from your body and BAM! you are fixed. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. While physically removing the tumor is best case scenario, what most people don’t understand is that the cancer cells are microscopic and linger. They fucking linger. So we nuke them with shots of radiation and chemo, in hopes of eliminating or at the very least, slow the growth of the cancerous cells. Even after they scooped Gretchen out (apparently, she scooped out like ice cream), we zapped her tumor bed (and a little extra) to make sure she was dead and gone. Radiation to the brain is awful. You are a strapped to a table with a mask that is molded to your head, to ensure that you do not move, and shoved into a tiny tube. If you are claustrophobic, you better pray you don’t get brain cancer.
During radiation, I lost all of the hair on one side of my head (rad cut, right?). Other than my hair, I appeared normal on the outside, so know one understood how exhausted I was. I was able to work full-time through radiation by the grace of Adderall and by taking naps in the company parking lot during the lunch hour. I wish I could say that after radiation and chemo, I suddenly bounced back to ‘normal’, but it doesn’t just happen like that. Remember – cancer lingers! Of course, I no longer hide under hair extensions, Adderall has been replaced with a pot of coffee, and naps occur in short spurts rather then entire days. I guess this is what some would call my ‘new normal’… again, in my opinion this is a bullshit. Truly, you may not know it from my writing, but I am such a positive person and I understand the sentiment behind the positive ‘new normal’ bullshit, but again, just call it what it is. What is happening is NOT NORMAL and should not be happening to you or anyone. Ever.
Of all of the things that changed in my life because of cancer, my weakened brain function is a top contender. I hate that I spent so much time and money investing in my education and career, and yet I know I am not what I once was. I forget things, make mistakes (seriously, how many typos have you found so far?), slur my words when I get too tired, etc. etc. etc.
But I have also found that my normal is enough. Even though it guts me to share my flaws on paper and even more with those around me, like my employer, I have found that most people are understanding if you simply let them in. If you say what you need and so much as mention the “c” word, people understand. That isn’t to say that you won’t receive some judgement (especially when you are years out), because you will. In those moments, be an advocate for yourself and if you can’t for yourself, be an advocate for all of the survivors that will come after you. It is a teachable moment. Take a moment to educate others that you have scars and battle wounds that may be slow to heal. Give yourself some grace and move on. If that isn’t good enough for someone, fuck them. You deserve better. You and your normal ass-self are destined for great things.