It’s easy enough to figure out what people want to hear. When the question is asked — how do you feel? or, how are you doing? — there really is only one response. I smile and say I’m feeling good or I’m doing well, but the truth is it’s so much more complicated than that.
My go-to response lately has been, “I feel almost normal.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I like to think it relates a greater truth than simply saying I feel good. Normal is one of those words that means so many different things, and yet it really means nothing. What is “normal” anyway?
Maybe normal is being able to raise your hands above your head without pain, or sleep comfortably on your side. Maybe it’s being able to reach behind your back and hook a bra strap, or comb the back of your hair without feeling like your arms are coming out of their sockets.
Yesterday I realized that I can reach the top hangers in my closet with my left hand, something I haven’t been able to do since before my surgery. I can stretch my arm up to that high rod and I don’t feel like I’m going to tear open the entire left side of my body. I have more stamina, too. I’m definitely stronger, though not quite back to my pre-surgery self. On Sunday I walked to the local CVS to pick up a prescription. Maybe because it was so much colder than I expected it to be, or maybe because the walk was a little longer than I remembered, I was winded and wiped out by the time I got back home. But I did it. Three weeks ago, my walk was still an unsteady shuffle.
I look at my body in the mirror and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Some things have changed for the better, but other things, things I worked hard over the years to improve on my own (like my upper arms) seem a little worse for the wear. I know it’s mostly temporary, but still.
I had an appointment with my gynecologist yesterday. I needed an exam to get clearance from her to start the Tamoxifen. She is also a breast cancer survivor and has been on Tamoxifen for just about three years. We talked a lot about the side effects. In her experience, it’s all been minor stuff — hot flashes and trouble sleeping. She said she was very nervous about taking the drug at first, but that it’s really been no big deal.
I can handle no big deal.
I am impatient with my recovery. When I start to slow down, or feel that weird pulling across my abdomen, I get discouraged. Sometimes I’m still very uncomfortable and I get frustrated by that. But for the most part, those feelings don’t linger. I am not hanging out in the house of blues by any means. Most days I am kind of in awe of this whole process — the fact that doctors can “fix” you in this way and your body just kind of bounces back. It’s truly amazing.
When I tell people I feel almost normal, I know it can’t mean much to them. They may think of what their own normal feels like and just assume it’s the same for me. And it could be. But my normal has changed. I’ll never be my pre-diagnosis, pre-surgery self. Physically, I’m changed. Emotionally, too.
For most of my 30s and 40s, I worried my way through dodgy mammogram results. There was always something “to watch” or to biopsy. And now the thing I feared the most has happened. I got cancer. But it didn’t play out the way I expected it to. Treatment was swift and decisive, recovery has been pretty much okay. None of it was as bad as I expected it to be, and yet I am forever changed.
So if you ask me how I am and I tell you I feel almost normal, understand that I say this because I don’t know what else to say. I’m not sure I can ever give voice to what’s really inside my head, to the things that have been lost and the things that have been gained.
I do feel almost normal. But it’s so much more complicated than that.