Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is Cancer The New Normal ?

I'm on a lovely vacation this week and have been catching up on all of my reading, sun worshipping (yes,yes..with SPF70) and partying like it's 1985. Well what's a girl to do when she's on a little break from treatment as she ponders the next step ? Drink a lot of mojitos and spend a lot of time not actually making a decision about what to do next. But that's the subject of another post soon to come. So let's get back to this one.

I was reading an excellent book review entitled "Cancer World" by Steven Shapin in The New Yorker of "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A very comprehensive and well-written review and I highly recommend you read it. After you have read this post, obviously. But it was Shapin's last paragraph that really struck me and got my old brain ticking over. He writes:

"...."Cancer, my new normal". A world in which cancer is normalized as a manageable chronic condition would be a wonderful thing, but a risk-factor world in which we all think of ourselves as precancerous would not. It might decrease the incidence of some forms of malignancy while hugely increasing the numbers of healthy people under medical treatment. It would be a strange victory in which the price to be paid for checking the spread of cancer through the body is its uncontrolled spread through the culture."

Well dear readers, I don't know about you, but it already feels like this has happened in the world of breast cancer. So many times I hear breast cancer being talked of as though it's a chronic disease (even though the dirty little secret is that it isn't) and the pervasive culture that exists around breast cancer is one that seems to promote normalization with the unintended consequence of desensitizing the masses to the seriousness of the disease. The hope for a cure or prevention entirely is shrouded by the vagaries of yet more "awareness" campaigns and more incremental drugs whose success is judged on how much time they buy, not eradication.

And certainly in breast cancer parlance I hear a lot of talk about the "new normal" and the importance of finding your "new normal". You can find plenty of information on this topic by simply running an Internet search. Now quite frankly, most of the websites that I found covering this particular topic are of the type that make me feel like I'm sitting in a darkened room on a floor-ful of sequined cushions listening to a New Age therapist with flowing grey hair named Dandelion making ohm-like soothing noises whilst simultaneously cleansing my aura and negative cancerous energy with her toolkit of polished rocks masquerading as healing crystals.

Apparently, according to an example of a Dandelionesque website......

"The search for what is your "new” normal is the culmination of your breast cancer experience. It can define your identity and the path you take on your journey to recovery. It becomes a chance for you to make some choices and take charge of how your life goes while you're in the recovery process."

Pardon me, but this almost sounds like something I'd want to buy tickets to. And invite my friend Deidra who's always looking for new positive life-affirming experiences.

But then Dandelion's tone takes on a slightly more ominous tone. Ah yes, the metastatic breast cancer "survivor". Not much to be said for these poor unfortunates except this:

"However, if you are a survivor living with metastatic breast cancer, “new” normal has a whole other meaning. It’s about adjusting to living with cancer every day, managing your ongoing treatment and maintaining your quality of life. And, unfortunately, a “new” normal in this case isn’t always as positive as it is for a survivor who has completed treatment."

Quite right Dandelion, metastatic breast cancer does suck, (this is exactly what Dandelion said but I said it much more succinctly), but please just remind me again, what is it that we have survived ? And should we really be even trying to apply the term "normal" to the ordeal of living with metastatic cancer, Dandelion ? Because let's face it, there's nothing about it that even resembles a little bit about what I remember as being normal. But hey, if it makes everyone else feel better then go right ahead.

After trying valiantly to convince herself that the experience of living and coping with metastatic breast cancer can be magically transformed into normalcy, Dandelion starts feeling a major downer coming on. And so she reaches for the uppers. In this case her drug of choice is the intertwining of the "new normal" and "survivor identity" concepts.

After snorting her feel-good cocktail of cancer cliche', Dandelion leaves us with this uplifting thought:

"Defining your “new” normal and your survivor identity are synonymous. They both can open up a world of opportunities if you embrace it."

Really Dandelion ? A world of opportunities ? Embrace it ? Let me just think on that a little more as I embark on yet another round of questionable chemotherapy, contemplate being bald and sick for the rest of my life, and am left wondering what happened to my world of opportunities after breast cancer rudely barged into my life.

But seriously Dandelion. Let me just say this. There is nothing new or normal about having cancer. And we better start embracing this notion very soon, or I fear the result as predicted by Shapin's book review. That cancer just becomes an acceptable part of our culture. And that's not my idea of normal.


  1. Very well said Anna. Thank you, an excellent read, extremely well expressed.

  2. Anna, Lots here to think about! I keep hearing about finding my new normal too and it kinda irks me. I agree, there is and never will be anything normal about any of the cancer experience.

  3. I hate to say it but I think the concept of "new normal" is a complete myth. Perhaps the concept is meant to speak to accepting a new reality on some level, but I just cannot bring myself to use the term "normal" in describing this process, because it just isn't.

  4. Anna, Great blog and great post. You are a very good writer. I plan to republish this post on Friday, Dec3, as a guest post at Being Cancer Network. I will include two links to your site as well as a link to the original post. You should see an increase in traffic to your site. You will also be added to the Honor Roll for Excellence in Cancer Writing.

  5. great post! i share the same feeling, thx for writing it so well !

  6. Thanks for stopping by Cathie. Welcome to the ongoing discussion !

  7. Very well written and thought out. I remember when my wife was first diagnosed 7 years ago I thought OK we'll just do the surgery and chemo and that will be that. Little did I realize that seven years later my wife would be hemiplegic, suffering from expressive aphasia and experiencing memory issues. Not quite the course one expects for breast cancer. The dirty little secret is that the mortality rate hasn't changed in two decades.

  8. Thanks for your comment bernicky and I'm sorry to hear about your wife. But you got it one, about the breast cancer mortality being the dirty little secret. And we're supposed to accept all this as normal ? I DON'T THINK SO !


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