I like to plan. So when I was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, I tried my hardest to make my new world of blood counts and biopsies and chemotherapy fit into the one inch by one inch squares of my planner. I was determined that this whole cancer thing would just be like a bad chapter in a book, something you have to go through to get to the good stuff. I went through the months of chemo and radiation, antsy to get back to doing normal 17-year-old things, antsy to get back to normal. I walked out of my last day of chemo and radiation and was so excited, thinking it was all finally over.
And in some ways, it was over. The chemotherapy and radiation did their job. Physically, I was feeling better each day but mentally, I was fighting a whole new battle. I was starting to realize that it was harder for me to relate to kids my own age. I suddenly loved bad hair days because it meant that I had hair on my head again. Trivial arguments with friends didn't rattle me as much. I was excited to go to school because it made me feel normal. In the cancer club, they call all this "new perspectives." It was indeed a new perspective, and I felt lucky to be able to have the ability to step back and look at the big picture. But these "new perspectives" also served as a constant reminder to me of how much cancer had changed me. I struggled as I tried to fit fears of relapse and fears of long term side effects neatly into my 17-year-old life alongside curfews and high school dances and standardized tests, and the more I struggled, the more I began to resent my experience.
I slowly began to realize my old normal didn't exist anymore and had been replaced by a new normal. A new normal where "remission" was synonymous with "healthy." "D-day" -- Diagnosis Day -- became an anniversary of its own, marked on the calendar alongside birthdays and reunions. Flu shots and sinus infections gave me back the sense of normalcy that once was yanked from my life. Seven years later now, I'm beginning to understand that it's not only about realizing there's a new normal, but also about living in it.
Like most things in life, that's easier said than done, and there are definitely days I wrestle with certain aspects -- big and small -- of my experience. I can't eat Ben and Jerry's New York Super-Fudge Chunk Ice Cream anymore, because that's what I ate the day I was diagnosed, and I can't walk by the hospital at the University of Minnesota without remembering the nights I spent there. There are times I get angry about long-term side effects from my treatment, and nights where I can't fall asleep because I wonder what my routine follow-up X-rays and scans might reveal. These things remind me of what cancer took from me, but the lessons I learned from my experience are bigger and more enduring than anything that could ever be taken away from me. I learned it's okay to be vulnerable sometimes, and that the love and support family and friends can offer truly is unconditional. I've learned there is indeed life -- a good life -- after cancer. I've learned that people are much braver than they think they are, and that having faith that things will be okay in the end is more powerful than a lot of people believe. I've learned that change happens -- some of which we plan for, but most of which we don't -- and that life doesn't always fit nicely into the one inch by one inch squares of your planner. Perhaps most importantly, I've learned I don't know what normal is anymore, but I do know what hope is... and I've learned that hope is something cancer can never take from me.