Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
I get asked, a lot, about how to return to normal while living with cancer. I don’t want to be returning to the past since I’d rather be looking toward the future.
I smile when asked about “returning to normal.” So often, we want to return to the status quo — the state that existed before where we are now, even when that “before” may not have been the best place to be.
This is how I think about cancer — the before was good but I was blind to my risk and to what was happening inside my body. So how good was it, really? I get asked, a lot, about how to return to normal while living with cancer. My first thought is that this is not the goal in my life; I don’t want to be returning to the past since I’d rather be looking toward the future.
I’ve found it better to acknowledge what I am now and to add those pieces of my former life that resonate today. I want to be better than I was, in so many ways.
As a person living with cancer and ongoing treatments, I’ve learned how to live with uncertainty in ways that many people don’t experience. My uncertainty centers around how long a drug will keep working and how long I will live once it stops working. It’s about life and death. Making room for this uncertainty, psychologically and emotionally, has been difficult and essential.
Living with years of active cancer treatment, I’ve spent a lot of time drawing upon memories of times when I needed resilience and focus to get (or stay) where I wanted to be. That’s because, for me, living as normal a life as I can has meant being knocked down. A lot. It’s meant fighting my way up a steep learning curve about cancer and my care, putting myself out there to advocate for more research and better patient experiences, shoving down feelings of discomfort in order to be the person I know I can be.
Before cancer, I lost moments of profound joy by not being centered and present in my daily life. My husband would sometimes ask me “If not now, when?” whenever I chose to keep to myself rather than reach out to the people I loved and who also loved me. I keep his question close to my heart these days and remind myself that the joy I want is right here, maybe a little changed — just like my life — but not gone.
Long ago, hope was a vague expression of distant dreams. I still have that kind of hope but my new expressions of hope center around action. I hope for better treatments and I take action to help make that happen. I hope for stronger relationships between doctors and the patients they care for, and I take action to try to improve communication and knowledge. For me, today, hope is a word of action.
I’ve tried to live my life in gratitude, always, though sometimes less well than others. Living with cancer has reinforced the core of my absolute belief in gratitude. The heartbreaking toll of metastatic cancer can hide gratitude momentarily, but it always reappears. I’m not sure my before-cancer self had the capacity for gratitude that I now have for kind people, resourceful doctors, scientific dreamers, and our beautiful world.
So, how do you get back to normal? For me, much of it came from acknowledging the power of gratitude, strength, growth, joy, and hope. These threads are knit tightly together, flexible, frequently changing in importance, able to absorb the hard times and weave those in too, forming an ever-evolving, ever-better normal.