This past weekend I attended the first birthday party of an adorable little girl. Between singing happy birthday and cheering on a messy cake smash I caught up with Julie*, an old friend I was hoping to see on this festive day. As usual, she radiated casual elegance in a blush silk blouse and tailored pants. Her dirty blonde hair that hung at her shoulders in a long bob was now fully regrown and was all her own. Five years earlier while undergoing chemotherapy Julie wore a wig to replace her beautiful locks. At the time, she was the only young person I knew who had cancer so when I too was diagnosed in my late twenties I immediately reached out to her. I soon discovered that she could empathize like nobody else and she became my cancer coach. She would respond to my emotional texts with kindness and understanding and I relied on her thoughtful guidance throughout treatment.
As I plowed through a cupcake, sprinkles falling everywhere, we covered the requisite “How long has it been?” “Where are you living?” “What are you up to now?” I updated her on my life sharing that I had put my naturopathic medical practice on a permanent hold while I taught at a local college. She had a new boyfriend and was living in Toronto working full time at her dream job in the fashion industry.
Then shit got real.
Julie leaned closer and asked, “So when did you start to feel normal again?”
I was so taken aback by the simple yet thoughtful question that I almost choked on a few sprinkles. No one had ever asked me this before, maybe because most people just assumed that when I finished treatment I would be all better. Cured. Healthy. Ready for life! I couldn’t really blame them. Naively, I too believed that I’d be better in no time since no one warned me that recovery would take so long.
I finished my bite and wiped the crumbs from my lips before replying shamefully, “I didn’t feel normal for about two years.” While I wasn’t lying, I wasn’t telling the whole truth. I couldn’t admit that I am still awaiting a complete return to normal. I was ashamed because I am a natural health expert; the professional people turn to in times of illness and recovery. I should know the secrets to healing. On top of that, I am young, healthy, and active. I should have been that person who ran a marathon the day after treatment. But I wasn’t and this healing thing was taking a very long time.
Julie took a deep breath and sighed, “Thank-you! Thank-you for saying that. To be completely honest, I still don’t feel normal.” She rushed through her confession as if she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. It was clear that she was eager to tell someone how much she’d been struggling since treatment.
If Julie could be brave than so could I. I fessed up, “Sorry, if we’re being completely honest, I still don’t feel normal yet either.” As we continued to share stories of our protracted recoveries I felt lighter as if I’d shed a layer of shame.
Normalcy after cancer is impossible to define; it’s more of a feeling that arrives when you forget you were ever ill. In the beginning of my recovery, I never forgot, I was always aware of how shitty I felt. But as the months progressed it became easier to get lost in a moment. Whether I was watching a great movie, laughing at the dog, or working out, for a few minutes I’d forget that I was sick. These periods of normalcy lasted longer the further I got from treatment. Some days I’d feel like myself for a few hours or more.
Then, just when it seemed like I was finally improving I’d have a setback. The physical symptoms would return pain flares, nausea and vomiting, and trips to the emergency room. This would lead to more investigations: CT scans, scopes, and specialist visits. It was hard to feel normal while sitting in an emergency room dressed in a hospital gown while receiving a morphine drip. Once the flares settled the healing pattern would repeat and once again I would feel the relief of forgetting.
Julie had been through numerous chemo treatments that changed her body and drained all her energy. Despite feeling crummy she pushed to return to a normal life. She went back to a busy (and very stressful) career, she started dating again, and she socialized regularly.
Julie recognized that she had been overdoing it and she admitted, “It was all a bit too much too soon.” She needed a break and was considering taking a leave from work. Unfortunately, pretending to be normal doesn’t make it so.
After cancer it is hard to find a balance between forging ahead and slowing down. What feels right in one moment can feel awful in the next. There were times when I was so bored that I would have done anything to feel productive again. But there were also times when my fatigue demanded a blanket, a couch, a bag of chips, and ten episodes of Jane the Virgin. Most frustratingly, it wasn’t up to me. Naturopathic doctor or not, I couldn’t just decide to move on and leave cancer behind. It was stuck with me and I was stuck in healing limbo.
In our brief chat Julie and I inadvertently gave each other permission to keep healing and even though we didn’t need it, it felt wonderful to have it. Here was an equally healthy, young, vibrant, and capable woman admitting she needed more time. I took comfort in her honesty. I guess feeling normal takes time and as it turns out, that’s normal too.
* Name changed