Searching for “Normal” after Cancer

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#18 in a series)

“Ask a million questions before you start treatment.” That’s an excellent piece of advice from triple-negative breast cancer survivor Nancy Steiler.

The 51 year-old middle-school counselor was diagnosed last November and recently completed treatment. “When your treatment is over, everyone thinks you are fine,” says Nancy. “But you’re not. Inside you still need love and support. It takes awhile to heal in all ways.”

Nancy’s saga began when she found a lump in her breast — yet another example of why women need to be familiar with their own breasts.

Like many of us, Nancy had never heard of triple-negative breast cancer before her own diagnosis. Her overall health had always been good, but there was some breast cancer in her family tree. Because she has an identical twin sister with two daughters, she decided to be tested for the BRCA gene.

What is the BRCA gene?
From the National Cancer Institute: BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. Mutation of these genes has been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. A woman’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a deleterious (harmful) BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Men with these mutations also have an increased risk of breast cancer. Both men and women who have harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations may be at increased risk of other cancers. If a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation is found, several options are available to help a person manage their cancer risk.

Much to the sisters’ relief, Nancy does not carry the BRCA gene. Her course of treatment included a lumpectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 33 radiation treatments. She’s had a mixed bag of negative and positive experiences with health care professionals. As for the positive, she sends a special thanks to the Chemo Angels organization, the Hudson Valley Radiation oncology team, and to her oncology nurse, for their kindness and compassion.

Nancy recommends a proactive philosophy to health care. “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do if you are not comfortable with them. Get a cancer survivor to go with you to ask the questions. It is important you know ahead of time what you are up against. Don’t ever assume that the doctor’s office, the secretary, or the nurse is following up with paperwork. Get copies of everything and have everything sent to your primary care doctor. If you can’t focus long enough, give these directions to your friend or family member helping you.

“Find something wonderful to do for yourself every day. No excuses.You are here. Rejoice in it and thank God.”

Searching for Normal
With her treatment completed, she and her 14 year-old son are free to get back to normal. But normal, after treatment for cancer, can be a vague concept.

So what’s next for this survivor? “I’m still trying to focus. I am a middle-school counselor who had to leave her students for way too long,” she says wistfully.

Nancy has reached the crossroads … the “what happens now?” part of her journey. It’s a question faced by cancer patients every day. Will life go back to the way it was? Do I even want it to? How do you transition from focusing on lifesaving treatment back into “normal” life? Time reveals the answers as each survivor finds their own way through the emotional adjustment.

Personally, I’m not there yet. I’m still in treatment, still in fighting mode, as I have been for more than 10 months. I’ve faced new normals before, and I’m sure I will again. It keeps life interesting — the operative word being “life.”

Related: To Mammogram or Not to Mammogram, That is the Question

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series
#1 The Lump in my Breast: Meeting the Enemy
#2 Most Breast Lumps are Non-Cancerous: Would mine be?
#3 The Mammogram, the Ultrasound, and ‘the Look’
#4 The Biopsy and Breast Cancer Confirmation
#5 A New Twist: It’s Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
#6 Before the Mastectomy: Planning for the Future
#7 Mastectomy Day: What it’s like to lose a breast
#8 After the Mastectomy: Unveiling and Staging
#9 10 Odd Things to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer
#10 Cancer Battle Plan Phase 2: Chemotherapy
#11 5 Things I Love About my Very Expensive Health Insurance
#12 10 Simple Gestures of Kindness with Healing Power
#13 Half a Year on Chemotherapy and Taking Nothing for Granted
#14 Breast Cancer Treatment: Weighing Reward and Risk
#15 The Radiation Decision, The Long Road, The Badge of Honor
#16 The Healing Power of Nurses
#17 Grieving Son Recounts Mom’s Battle with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Access all posts in the Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series

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Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo7 years ago

Steve R:

I'm sorry about your wife's diagnosis. From my own observations, I believe the husband's road is as difficult as the wife who has TNBC, and you are going to need some support, too. But don't "hold your breath." Although the treatment period is rough and seemingly endless, you're both still alive and together, so make sure you are living each day to the fullest. I know how hard that is and how easy it is to get lost in the fight, but it is possible to enjoy life at the same time. I've been in treatment for TNBC since last October and I'm not done yet -- but we've continued to participate in life and enjoy ourselves to the fullest. Three years...five years...fifty years...none of us knows what the future holds. All any of us really has is today.

All my best,

Steve R.
Steve R.7 years ago

As a husband of a wife recently Dx with stage 3, grade 3, Triple neg cancer with a 6cm tumor and spread to lymph nodes I feel like life just stopped. We have kids. Young kids. I feel like I need to become super healthly and stop all activities that have any risk. Life is such a crazy journey. How do you hold your breath for 3-5 years and hope that everything turns out ok?

Judith Corrigan
Judith Corrigan7 years ago

Why search for normal? Your body has been through a traumatic experience,don't search for normal,make your life phenomonal!!

Patricia R.
Patricia Rain7 years ago

As a woman who has survived a terminal cancer diagnosis (breast cancer in my liver) 7-1/2 years ago, I can say through my own experience and from knowing many other women with metastatic cancer, that normal is an elusive word. Normal is very plastic and changes with each step of the journey. What is normal for someone who receives a relatively benign cancer diagnosis if, in fact, there is such a thing, treatment will be straightforward and an end is in sight. Regardless, she will be forever changed and her sense of normal will have taken on a different hue. For those of us who have had more difficult diagnoses, our perception of "getting well" and "returning to normal," is more elusive. We're aware that many types of cancer cells can remain dormant for two decades, that the old adage of five years out of treatment means you're cured, is no longer viable.

A diagnosis of a life-threatening illness is akin to aging. We are constantly reinventing normal. We have good periods and very challenging periods. We feel hopeful some days and some days we realize that our condition is chronic and, ultimately, progressive. It is coming to terms with this concept that requires a rethinking of how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive life. It can be a transformative experience. It is the difference between being healed and being cured.

In my case, through a "miracle" I have been disease-free for over three years. I know that this could change on a dime, but I am very g

Shari J.
Shari J.7 years ago

It is a journey, Thank you and God Bless.

lee e.
lee e7 years ago

Life after cancer is anything but "normal" regardless of age, or kind! As a single man - after the disfigurement of radiation and the inability to have intimacy in my life - I wish I had never treated my cancer - I feel my life ended at the age of 59 - I hope the best for you, and that you have a better result!

Amy Hughes
Amy Hughes7 years ago

The single most important thing to take away from this article is that there is a continued need for support and understanding. This is a major life trauma, and those that beat this need their friends to rally around them, not just while they are fighting the good fight but afterwards too.

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance7 years ago

Another great article Ann. I look forward to your articles.

All the best as you continue your journey!

Sameer Tendulkar
Sameer Tendulkar7 years ago


Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun7 years ago

Thank you for the information.