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Embracing My New Normal After Breast Cancer

I realized that my concept of normal has changed, but it isn't all bad.
I was done with cancer. Chemo, check. Mastectomy, check. Reconstruction, check and check. I think people thought they were being helpful or hopeful as they told me that now it was time for my “new normal.” Secretly at first, then not so secretly as I wrote and talked about it, I hated that phrase. Not because I didn’t want to get used to the physical and emotional changes that would likely stay with me forever, but because I hated the idea that the “old normal” was gone. Accepting a new normal seemed to me like admitting that cancer was stronger than me.

I was adamant to carry on with my life without ever embracing that phrase, but now after three years, there are some things that seem so normal to me, I forget they’re not normal to most people. It’s like they’re a different kind of normal for me. Perhaps even a new normal…

There was the time when I had my first appointment with my new primary care physician. I figured it was about time that I consider I might have issues that aren’t really the concern of my oncologist. After we chatted for a moment, the nurse gave me a gown and told me to leave on my bra and underwear and to put on the gown opening in the back. Right! Normal people wear bras. I do have a couple that I could have worn if I’d thought about it, but it’s been ages since I’ve been to a normal doctor. I forgot that there were doctors that let you leave your bra on and don’t want the gown to open in the front!

Another time I listened to a big group of friends talking about people you would be surprised to know had tattoos, and I nearly chimed in, “I have two!” Luckily, I quickly realized it would be a great party conversation for the stay-at-home mom in a Lilly Pulitzer sweater to tell about youthful indiscretions involving a butterfly tramp stamp and a dolphin on her ankle. Reminding everyone that I had my breasts removed because of cancer and that the tats were only the clever recreation of nipples by a very talented tattoo artist might bring down the mood a little.

The funniest situation, to me, was the time I was at the dentist and he was telling me about some work that needed to be done. Apparently those metal fillings I got as a child don’t last forever. He commented that the same work needed to be done on both sides of my mouth. “You are remarkably symmetrical,” he told me. I nearly laughed out loud, even with his fingers all up in my grill, wondering if he had any idea how many conversations I had about symmetry with my plastic surgeon. Oh, I’m remarkably symmetrical, all right, but he might have been surprised by how amused I was at his comment.

I guess part of me still hates thinking that I can’t go back to the old normal-- the woman who didn’t instinctively pull the seatbelt away from her chest or say things like, “When I was bald…” But part of moving on and moving forward is letting the new become normal. In spite of how adamant I was, I have embraced my new normal without even realizing it.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Breast Cancer CURE discussion group.
As a PhD student in tumor biology, Jamie Holloway survived long hours researching breast cancer in the labs of Georgetown University. Ten years later, after being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, she survived that too. Now with no evidence of disease, she shares a patient's perspective with scientists and clinicians as a breast cancer research advocate. A wife, mother, runner, and lipstick addict, she shares her story from the perspective of both a patient and a scientist.
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