Is this normal?

The 2018 Honorary Walk Chair Johanna D’Addario is a cancer survivor and advocate of knowing your family history and learning all you can about your genetics to proactively take charge of your health. 

By Johanna D’Addario

 

I often wonder what a “normal” life feels like. I haven’t felt normal for nearly 10 years, but have usually just chalked it up to a “new normal”. I say it with a smile on my face when people ask how I am doing. “Oh fine! It’s just a new normal.”

Sometimes I don’t like that idea – new normal.  I just want to be normal again.  I’m 34 years old! I shouldn’t be having hot flashes and night sweats. I shouldn’t get tired so easily.  I should be able to keep up with the other women in my gym class. Why can’t I do push-ups and burpees like the rest of them??

On the outside, of course, I look like a completely normal 34-year-old. One of the biggest challenges that I have felt is that nobody necessarily knows what I’ve been through unless I tell them, because on the outside, fully clothed, I look exactly the same as I did before. But inside, I know I’m not the same.

While I was waiting to board a plane last weekend, I had an intense hot flash in the jet bridge. How embarrassing! Here people see a “normal” person, way too young to be in menopause, sweating and fanning herself. My face was red, I had sweat on my upper lip. It was not pretty. But I knew that I just had to wait it out. I guess I could have said to the people around me: “Hi, I’m a breast cancer survivor, and on tamoxifen therapy. I get hot flashes regularly. Don’t mind my sweating.” I guess there’s also really no point in explaining to strangers why I am not normal. They probably didn’t even notice. But I stood there, suffering silently, until it was over.

I told my primary care doctor at my last physical that my full-time job was very tiring. But I followed it up with, “I don’t know if a normal person would get tired doing the same job, or if it’s just me.” I constantly wonder how my stamina compares to someone with no health issues. I don’t want to use my diagnosis as an excuse to do less work, or take more breaks. But sometimes I can’t help but think that my stamina has changed significantly. Of course, maybe that’s just because I’m not 25 anymore. How do I know what normal is for my age?

My doctor was incredibly validating. She reminded me that we all need good restorative sleep in order to function. I have night sweats. We have to have good nutrition in order to function. I try to eat well, but have problems absorbing vitamins and nutrients like B12 and iron. Oh yeah, and there’s that fear of recurrence that’s always there, somewhere, even when I push it to the back of my brain. I guess that can be exhausting as well. There are the medical visits to fit into an already busy schedule… I could go on, but you get the point. As much as I feel “normal” in my ability to work and continue with daily life, I guess I’m not.  And it’s okay to recognize that and focus on self-care.

I firmly believe that women with breast cancer are strong, persistent, and hardworking. Some have physical signs of their cancer treatment, and some don’t. But a cancer diagnosis is life-changing for women in so many ways, whether others can see the physical changes or not. We all experience physical and emotional changes with cancer. Fatigue, stress, pain, hormonal changes…all of a sudden, the “normal” you is gone and replaced with a cancer patient. A new normal.

On October 6th, 2018, we will walk together as a group of breast cancer patients, clinicians, and supporters. We will be surrounded by other women with similar challenges and “normal” will go out the window. We will share our common attributes of strength, determination, and stamina. Perhaps the 26.2, 13.1, or 6.55 mile walk will be physically and emotionally exhausting, but we can all feel exhausted, proud, and “new-normal” together.

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