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Normalcy Following a Life-Threatening Cancer Diagnosis

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Months after I was told I was in remission for stage 3B lung cancer, my "normal" shifted as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

Sue McCarthy talks about how her normal changed drastically after she entered remission from lung cancer, right before the COVID-19 pandemic.

On January 2, 2020, my oncologist, Dr. G, told me I was in remission from stage 3B lung cancer. My husband and I stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way home to celebrate, and the clerk at the donut shop gave us our blueberry muffins free of charge. That day was special; it was the beginning of two and a half months of excitement, joy, hope and optimism about the future.

After that I looked forward to a lot of what I called, normalcy.

At the time of my diagnosis, in May 2017, my home-based tutoring business occupied half or more of my waking hours. By the time I reached remission, I had half of that many students. I was committed to rebuilding my business, even in the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although I would take on a couple more students tutoring remotely, I was not working enough to earn an adequate living.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provided unemployment to those of us not usually eligible for it. As a self-employed tutor, I was considered a gig worker. I struggled to implement the necessary computer skills to claim the funds I was eligible for.

Becoming a somewhat competent Zoom tutor was not easy, either. Tutoring online was never as fulfilling to me. And more importantly, my lack of comfort in working with technology in general led me to be less successful in educating my students online than I had been, at my dining room table.

Additionally, I wasn’t as strong as I had been before almost two years of cancer treatment.

Mere days passed, and life moved further and further from normalcy, aka normality, the condition of being normal. My husband and I became long-term substitute teachers for our grandchildren. Our grandson was an eager learner. He was in pre-school, and teaching him was a pleasure, but not so with our second-grade granddaughter. She let us know from day one that she hated computer school. I love the grandchildren dearly, but I had no stamina remaining.

Our silver lining was that the extra time together resulted in stronger connections among the four of us moving forward in our lives.

Easter was a nice day, but only three days later, suddenly, during physical therapy, my dad passed away. I’m sure living through just one month of the pandemic was incredibly hard on him. He was a friendly, outgoing guy all his life. My grief started to take over.

I was losing my sense of hope; hope for myself, hope for normalcy. As my weeks of seeking more than a bit of my life as expected stretched into months, I found myself making poor decisions. At times I had little to no clue how poor my decisions were.

I visited my primary care physician. My husband took me from my successful semi-annual lung CT scan to my annual check-up with my doctor. I was a nervous wreck. He told me that he would write me a prescription for a sedative, and I responded, “I’m fine, I don’t need it.”

I stopped getting my Botox treatments to help me with my severe dry eye disease. My vision got worse and worse.

Randomly I called the mental health counselor who had helped me from early in my cancer journey. I told her, “I don’t need your help anymore. Thank you.” In truth I needed her help more than ever.

I couldn’t do anything about the COVID-19 pandemic, but I could have given myself more love. It would have made a difference if I could have valued myself more mentally and emotionally.

My 2024 survivor self would tell my 2020 remission self, “One can never return to life as it was in the past after a life-threatening cancer experience.”

Before the end of 2020, before I had been vaccinated against COVID-19, I had figured it out. I had started taking care of myself. I had used the sedative a couple of times, as well as gotten the Botox treatment for dry eyes and had resumed counseling.

Four years later, I’m still getting used to my new normal.

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