Living with your New Normal

My editor for the Pink Tights series is Lee Prokaska, an experienced journalist and survivor. She and I were discussing “chemo-fog” which led to the idea for the current article, “Living with your New Normal.”

For many women, breast cancer is their first experience with a major illness. It brings on thoughts of mortality, vulnerability, and uncertainty. As a result, a woman’s psychological defences and coping mechanisms can be disrupted in a very profound manner.

The side effects of primary treatment including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy don’t help and can further traumatize a very fragile state of mind. It can take many months (actually even two to three years) after the completion of primary treatment for a woman to feel that she is psychologically in a good state of mind. Notice, I said “good” and not “normal.”

In My experience, people react very differently to the insult from breast cancer. Some will emerge stronger from the experience. I would like to illustrate this with two examples.

The first is from quality of life (QOL} research I did in the 1980s. We used a questionnaire to measure the QOL of women who had surgery followed by three to six months of adjuvant chemotherapy. We noticed that the QOL score dropped during treatment and then after completion of treatment, it not only improved but rebounded such that at 12 months, it was better than before treatment started, suggesting that they were now experiencing life differently than before.

The second example is from one of my patients from many years ago. Prior to her illness, she was a very passive person, a non-risk taker and her husband made all the decisions. At the time, there was an Outward Bound program designed specifically for breast cancer women who had completed their treatments. This is an international program that aims to foster the personal growth and skills of participants by using challenging expeditions in the outdoors.

At one follow-up clinic visit, the patients told me she had participated in Outward Bound in the Northern Ontario wilderness. Wow, some of the things she did were very scary. However, I noted a change, i.e. she talked with more confidence and her attitude about life was very positive. I enjoyed our subsequent follow-up visits. Her life had changed. She now made her own decisions and was doing activities she had not done before, including travelling to some very interesting places.

In my next article on “Living with your New Normal,” I will begin the discussion by talking about the feelings many women experience when treatments are finished and I tell them that I will see them in six months. I also tell them that in the next month or two, they may be teary and feel low, a bit surprising given that all those nasty treatments are done.

Stay tuned…………