I have just listened to the most recent podcast of You, Me and the Big C, the final one featuring the broadcaster Rachael Bland before her untimely death on 5 September.
I was late to the You, Me and the Big C party but instantly felt a connection to the three presenters; they were speaking my language, talking about subjects I understood only too well. I wanted them to be my BFFs.
When Rachael tweeted she had just days to live, I felt a sadness normally reserved for family and friends. Then she died and the country mourned, listeners of the podcast, that little bit more, and cancer patients most of all as they lost one of their own...
The last podcast was on the subject of 'the new normal' and I've decided to jump on this bandwagon because there's so much to talk about and possibly, not a phrase which fit and healthy people may have heard before, let alone used.
The words were spoken to me by my oncologist after my first recurrence of ovarian cancer, back in March 2017. It took me a while to process the words and understand what they really meant. Did I have a 'normal' pre-cancer and if so, what did that look like?
Many people who know me well will say I wasn't ever normal, and they are probably right. Nothing about my life has every been normal, from my dysfunctional childhood, growing up in a stepfamily before they were commonplace, to my overly organised persona, planning every detail of my days to within a millimetre of my life. I was the person who grabbed life by the horns and sucked the marrow out of it, sip by sip, all in a very controlled manner of course. I wasn't reckless, just enjoyed socialising, travelling, eating out, theatre, music - I was a social culture vulture.
Then cancer came knocking at my door. Did I let this stop the planning and organising? Hell no! It made me more determined than ever to live life to the full, whenever possible. So I continued to plan trips away, within the parameters of treatment, scans, blood tests and hospital visits. I had to know I had something to look forward to, while I coped with the banality of my fragile state of health.
So post-cancer recurrence no 1, my normal became a more moderated version of the person I was before, but still managing to 'live' within cancer's confines.
Both times I received the all clear, I celebrated with a trip abroad, some shopping, visiting more restaurants on my hitlist and sampling new cocktails, all documented in detail on social media so friends and followers could see I was still here, still living my life, whilst I still had one.
That's my new normal - living life while I still have one to live. I have pared down my work to a manageable load, three clients, all of whom are understanding of my situation, sympathetic when I am not feeling able to carry out tasks (there have been such moments over the past two years) and whose work I know well, so relatively stress-free. Unfortunately, my excessive shoe habit won't allow me to give up work completely!
That is another feature I have eliminated from my new normal - stress. I don't know how long I have, but I don't want any time I have to be clouded by stress, anxiety or unnecessary pressure. So I have learned to say 'no' or cancel arrangements at the last minute because it's right for me, despite knowing it may upset or even anger the person making the offer. I hope they understand and if they don't, well, tough. I have to think about me. Yes, the new normal is more me-centric and selfish, not because I want to be but because it's necessary to put myself first. I don't like it because that's not the person I am but it is the person I have had to become.
The new me paces myself - I have no choice. If I want to do something and enjoy it, I have to work up to it. An evening meal in a restaurant may mean I have to rest the whole day leading up to it. A trip into London means I won't do anything for the day before AND the day after. This is so different to the girl who would cram 36 hours into 24 pre-cancer, although I've always turned into a pumpkin by midnight. Now the new me goes to bed around 10/10.30pm, which is probably better for me anyway.
The new normal comes with a shedload of paranoia. Pre-cancer, I worried about illness and cancer crossed my mind on more than one occasion. However, I tended to internalise these concerns, keeping a watchful eye on aches and pains, discussing with my partner if I felt it necessary, following up with a GP appointment if the symptoms continued. I rarely externalised those health concerns, not even when cancer finally became more than just a worry and a very real threat.
Now, I run every little ache, pain and twitch past my partner on what feels like on a daily basis. It's so boring but I don't know if they are normal or something more sinister. I have become paranoid patient, emailing my oncologist with questions, which she patiently explains in return emails. I am not sure whether to pay her a visit or contact the ward at the hospital where I am being treated. Then the old me kicks in and rationalises "you have cancer, you're bound to have some twinges from time to time, run it past the doc at your next appointment".
The new normal lacks the confidence that the old normal used to display. This is particularly evident when travelling. I become very anxious before any journeys, be it a trip in the car (I have an irrational dislike of the M25 and will go out of my way to avoid it) or a tube jaunt to London (only 30 minutes from where I live). The thought of getting on a plane fills me with dread, so much so that I haven’t been abroad since May which is an eternity for someone like me who used to take a weekend city break maybe once a month.
The new normal is still affectionate but not to put too finer point on it, it is less physically active in the bedroom. The relationship has definitely taken a diversion in the new normal scenario. Enough said here, you get the gist.
It's taken me a while to write a new blog as I coped with the onslaught of fatigue which the new treatment enduced. However, listening to Rachael deliver an eloquent podcast just days before she died made me think if she could do it then so can I!
PS I am hoping that my new normal may include a guest broadcaster spot on You, Me and the Big C. Here's hoping...