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The Gifts of Cancer

A survivor discusses the decision to either accept each stage of the cancer journey or fight it with gusto.
BY Jill Kleiss
PUBLISHED August 12, 2019
Now two years post cancer, I have begrudgingly accepted the new normal that arrives in tandem with the gift of cancer survival.

In my old normal, at my 10-hours-a-day sales job, women decades younger dubbed me the Energizer Bunny. Sure, I spent a little extra time in front of the makeup mirror and an equal amount of time choosing the perfect outfit — the worse I felt, the better I planned to look. It’s a psychological trick I employ: Fake it to make it.

Old Normal barely registered everyday senses like balance and smell. It took for granted the fragrance of lavender growing outside my home and the scent of salted sea air that greeted me each day. Old Normal gave no thought to endurance or stamina, either. It loved bike rides flanked by the ocean and considered the ability to cascade down a hill or effortlessly climb a flight of stairs as life entitlements, not feats to be treasured. Every day, Old Normal would watch as I brushed and styled my long brown hair, giving no thought to its presence. Worst of all, Old Normal would quickly glance at those supported by wheelchairs and canes and, after a blip of sympathy shorter than a blink, continue to be Old Normal.

Enter the diagnosis — cancer — and the life cycle of Chemo Normal. Its balance issues required me to place a hand on a supportive shoulder. Chemo Normal’s lack of endurance meant keeping an ever-vigilant eye for the available empty chair. Chemo Normal balked at climbing stairs and gave an adamant “No!” when it came to riding bicycles — that ability was gone, completely gone. Poof. The saying “Once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget”? Not true.

Chemo Normal’s response to “Wake up and smell the roses”: “Forget about it.” Forget, too, the sweet-scented floral spectrum. Instead, Chemo Normal with its sense of humor, retained for me the odor of pungent, stinky perfume but not the burning odor of pots and pans, thus making timers mandatory cooking equipment.

On the outside, New Normal, albeit with a few changes like missing eyebrows and a receding hairline, looks like Old Normal. If you, like me, practice the trick of looking your best on your worst day, the compliments you receive can backfire: “You look great” comes with the expectation that Old Normal still exists when you, on the inside, know only New Normal — the you that has to be home in bed by 9 p.m., the you that has barely learned to walk again because of balance issues, the you that turns on timers so the house doesn’t burn down, the you that relies on movie subtitles because of hearing loss from chemotherapy — all while the stranger or a friend tells you what you want/don’t want to hear: “You look great.”

To these compliments, I smile and say “Thank you” while looking around for that chair.

Our longing for what was the old us is akin to a child who is emotionally attached to Mama’s skirt — a skirt imbued with magical powers, a skirt that must be captured in a tightly clenched fist to maintain security and status quo. Once that child’s tiny fingers capture that fabric, life’s disruptions seem surmountable. I want any remnant of my old normal self that I can recapture, and I will do whatever it takes to get back any piece of fabric from my old life.

Our team helps us recapture those pieces of fabric from Old Normal and supports us in our recovery. Teams for us vary but can include a physical therapist, essential for regaining balance and strength; an acupuncturist to help ease neuropathy or issues with sleep or energy; an oncologist who props our psyches and our immune systems to keep cancer at bay; and specialty doctors for any other maladies that chemo might have brought on — related to vision or cardio or osteoporosis. Accessory items complement the team: Fitbit trackers for sleep and exercise, herbal supple­ments, and on and on. No one but us knows about the adjustments made to accommodate New Normal.

Thanks to my physical therapist, New Normal has learned to ride again and climb stairs and regained balance. Thanks to my acupuncturist and supplements, New Normal can smell lavender again but still requires a cooking timer. Thanks to my oncologist, New Normal is in touch with support services, and the writer in me is back. Thanks to my hairdresser, New Normal’s shorter, sassier style, grown out from Chemo Normal’s baldness, gives me the confidence to walk tall and stand on my own two feet — 20 minutes at a time. New Normal still wants me in bed by 9 p.m., although those “You look great” friends think I can stay out until midnight.

The gifts? When I pass the wheelchairs and canes, my eyes well up and my thoughts linger a little bit longer. I look for doors they need opened and offer my chair to someone who has it a little rougher than I do. As we age, we all meet New Normal. Those of us who’ve traveled down Cancer Road just get there a little sooner, and we choose to accept Chemo Normal or fight it with gusto. In this place of being old and new again, we are blessed with the gifts of cancer — a kind and empathetic presence, ours for a lifetime.
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