The "New Normal": When the Battle Armor Comes Off
My “new normal,” a phrase often used in cancer circles to describe life in survivorship, completely took me by surprise when I exited treatment. It happened both times I experienced cancer! I have an over twenty-year career in mental health. Even with all my training, I couldn’t see the signs of a mental health crisis that was brewing post-treatment. I had bought into the belief that survivorship is about being heroic and celebrating with cake and dancing. After all, isn’t there a lot to be thrilled about?! Of course, there is! I am incredibly grateful every single day.
I came to learn through research and over conversations with survivors that I am not alone in the anxiety and depression that I felt post-treatment. Many of you reading this piece may still be in active treatment. Perhaps this is something to tuck away for later thought or to pass along to a friend or acquaintance.
Treatment offers structure and purpose
As I reflect on how it unfolded for me, I am given the benefit of the crystal-clear picture in the rearview mirror. Each morning, while in treatment for cancer, I would place my feet firmly on the ground with a sense of purpose and focus. There were medication regimens, therapies, a radiation schedule, or a diet to adhere to. I had a purpose. It provided a scaffolding of support around me that I didn’t realize had become critical to keeping my balance.
And then, treatment came to an end, and I was told to go back to my life. Hooray! Right? Break out the cake!
Let me stop you there – mid-bite into the cake. I’ll explain.
I felt alone
All that well-constructed structure broke away in the weeks and months post-treatment. What struck me was how “back to normal” everything seemed but how different I felt. It was enormously confusing. I was afraid to share how I was feeling with anyone because it didn’t fit the expectations everyone had about life in survivorship. I felt alone and struggled with depression.
The "new normal" is anything but normal
The road from normal to treatment to “new normal” is anything but “normal.” It is not carefully calculated with well-defined stops along the way. In other words, it is not linear. It has a lot of ups and downs and a lot of new discoveries about yourself, your life, and how you relate to others.
Acknowledge your feelings and seek help
So, here are a few secrets I learned addressing my mental health in the “new normal” stage.
- It is very important to first acknowledge your feelings and honor that they exist in whatever form that they may appear. This is especially critical if they don’t fall within your preconceived ideas about survivorship.
- Find a space to talk about it either with another survivor, friend, or family member who is non-judgmental. If you find that your mental health symptoms are impacting your daily life, seek the help of a professional therapist or clinical social worker and talk to your doctor about the challenges you are facing.
- It can be helpful to connect in a supportive environment with like-minded individuals who can bring connection on a consistent basis. Many faith communities, medical centers, and community groups offer support or activity group options.
Just because treatment is over doesn’t mean healing is finished – it is not linear and takes time. As you heal, you may find that you have built your own scaffolding to support a “new normal,” and it may just include breaking into a dance or a piece of cake from time to time.
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