When a cancer diagnosis requires a lifestyle overhaul, it's important to recognize the gifts this forced transition brings.
Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
The phrase “the new normal” has gone beyond catchphrase status. It has become ingrained in society’s vocabulary to the point where it qualifies as (dare I say) a cliché. Clichés get a bad rap; the word itself has such a negative connotation. But here’s the thing – clichés are not born that way. They start out as fresh, succinct, digestible ways to express the essence of a new phenomenon. And then, when they get adopted into the folds of our lexicon, we turn our noses up at them as trite, overused, lazy.
All of this is to say that the reason “the new normal” is so widely used by cancer patients is that it so accurately describes what this disease does to our lives. It forces us to reassess, redefine, redesign and then adapt with as much grace and positivity as we can muster. But what becomes, then, of the old normal? Where does the old me go?
I’ve heard cancer compared to other life metamorphoses. But it’s not like college graduation, where it’s a rite of passage – moving into a new phase, a new era that holds enough novelty to distract from mourning youth lost. Of course, there have been many times as an adult that I pined for the simplicity of childhood or the carefree-ness of adolescence. But the yearning wasn’t painful; it simply was the way it was, the way it was supposed to be.
And it’s not like the transition that comes when a person overcomes an addiction. Sure, you may miss the drug or the sex or the adrenaline of betting it all on black, but you know you’re a better person for the loss of it.
Before my late-stage diagnosis, I was a whole, happy adult with a whole, happy life. At 40, I had created the life I wanted. It was far from perfect, but its joys were the product of my own hard work, and its flaws were the result of my own bad choices. If my life was going to change dramatically, it was because my work as a writer would suddenly catch fire; otherwise, any transformation that took place would be slow and organic.
I’ve spent a good chunk of the past two years bitching – not about the cancer itself, but about how it robbed me of my life. How I had to say goodbye to my beautiful, well-stocked apartment. How I had to leave a community that celebrated something almost nightly, often with costumes involved. How I had to suddenly cease playing weekly gigs with my rock and roll band. How I’d no longer be able to afford annual diving trips to exotic destinations like Borneo. How I had to move in with my parents, in the suburbs, at 40 years old. How people would no longer see me as just “Jen,” I’d be “Jen who has cancer.” Jen, as I knew her – as I made her – was gone. Poof.
But you know what? F*** that … no more moaning. I don’t want to spend my precious time in mourning. If this forced transition is new territory, then I’m going to explore it. And dammit, I’m gonna find its hidden treasures.
One of the greatest gifts that cancer has given me is a new sense of purpose as a writer. Though my “career,” writing has always revolved around journalism and screenwriting, creative non-fiction has always been my true passion. I’ve laid down a bunch of personal essays, the stories that have made my life more interesting. And until now, this is what I have considered my best writing. Never in a million years would I guess that having a life-threatening disease would be the thing that allowed me to tap into my deepest self and find my truest voice. But so it is. Having cancer may suck, but the experience of writing about cancer definitely does not suck. Yet as rewarding as this writing is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the other buried treasure I dug up…
Last weekend was my family’s annual Leo party. Since there is a fistful of people in my huge, tight-knit clan whose birthdays fall within a week of each other in August, we’ve celebrated together since I was a child. It’s a tradition that is so deeply woven into my fabric that, in the eight years I lived in Korea, I spent thousands of dollars and flew tens of thousands of miles to make it home for that Leo party every summer. This year was different. This year, I walked through the door to my Aunt Bonnie’s house and three little girls, my nieces Leah and Elle and my goddaughter, Izzy, ran to the door yelling my name and leapt into my arms. Because I was “forced” to live here, they know me well now. And they don’t see me as my cancer.
A few weeks ago, at my standing Monday night date for dinner and “Bachelor in Paradise” with my cousin, Cindy, my goddaughter, Izzy, held up a doll’s dress. She was trying to find a place to hang it, as only a four-year-old can make an entire game out of hanging things. She looked up and said, “Man … I just really need a good hooker.” Cindy and I laughed ourselves to tears.
And last night, I was playing in my regular poker game at my Aunt Candy’s house. My cousin, Lisa, had her two girls, Leah and Elle, over at her mom’s. Leah sat on my lap as I played, and I taught her the game that my aunt, her grandmother, had taught me. As she dropped my poker chips on the floor and whispered too loudly about the queen of hearts in my hand, I was suddenly overcome by a peace I haven’t known the likes of in a long, long time. If this is my world, now, then I’m just fine with saying goodbye to my old normal.
Not being a mother myself (another possibility that cancer robbed from me), being here, being home, is my opportunity to form relationships with the most important children in my life. If melanoma is going to take me down, I want to be more than just some name they hear at family gatherings. More than just my photograph. I want to be memories. Good ones. I want them to feel the kind of bond to me that I share with my aunts. And if this targeted therapy continues to annihilate my tumors, and I get to see these little girls grow up, then I’ll be grateful that I was ripped from my old normal simply for the fact that I got to experience their childhoods, too. I’m really hoping for that scenario. Because there’s another little girl in my sister-in-law’s belly who I’m dying to meet.