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Recovering from cancer, I longed for normalcy. Now I’m better, I’m not so sure normal is best | Hilary Osborne

OOn Thursday I took my family to school and work, debated what to wear and then cycled the five miles to the Guardian office in the sunshine. I checked my emails and chatted with colleagues about plans for the day. It was all very similar to June 27, 2022, with one big difference: at lunch I didn’t go to the hospital and came back with a breast cancer diagnosis.

It’s a shock to realize it’s been two years, but what’s even stranger is to think about the same day a year ago. I had finished my chemo and radiotherapy and had my surgery, but I was still on targeted drugs and feeling absolutely exhausted – just the thought of getting on my bike made me have to sit down for a while. My hair was thin and different lengths, I looked strangely gray and I only worked two days a week.

It feels so strangely disconnected from where I was before and where I am now. Liz Truss’s government came and went spectacularly while I was sick, and sometimes I have to check to make sure it wasn’t a fever dream. There are gaps in what I know about some topics because I didn’t pay the same attention between visits to the hospital, but in many ways it’s like an entire year of my life didn’t happen.

I remember one of the cancer nurses making a comment about when life would return to normal – “or probably a new normal”. Today’s normal looks a lot like the old normal – and I’m not sure that’s quite right.

Do not get me wrong. When I was sick, I longed for things to get back to normal and I’m grateful that they were able to do that. There are differences between life before and life now: I have to take tablets because my thyroid and adrenal glands no longer work, parts of me are not real and it looks like I no longer have armpit hair. But overall I have been so lucky and life is remarkably similar to what it was before June 2022. So much so that it sometimes feels like a surprise when my phone alarm goes off to remind me to take my hydrocortisone tablets.

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I often think it would be good if things were a little different.

Sometimes I feel like I still want my illness to be taken into account by other people – for example during football at the counter, when I have just missed an open goal and need an excuse, or when I am struggling to keep up with my partner as he walks up a hill. Sometimes I want people to see me as different – ​​perhaps as if I have new wisdom after my experience – and for my thoughts on things to be seen as more meaningful than before. Most of the time I kick myself for forgetting so quickly so many things that I thought I would do differently if my treatment worked and I got healthy again.

While I was sick, I went to bed early and read books, I canceled plans when I didn’t feel like going out, and I valued days to sit in the garden. I was lucky enough to be reminded of how much I loved my home and how much I got from the time I spent on a good novel. I wondered why I hadn’t spent that much time before, telling myself that those early nights and quiet evenings would continue – I couldn’t imagine feeling good enough for things to be different.

Now I’m already giving myself too much to do. I feel obligated to stick to my plans and spend a lot of time planning things to do on my days off. I stay later at work than intended and spend most days at home lying down instead of sitting in the garden enjoying a novel. It took me almost two months to read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – my son read it in a day.

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Returning to normal feels a lot like the post-Covid world. We all swore we would never go to work with a cold again. That we would support local businesses, be greener, and value time with those we loved. The cost of living crisis has offset some of that thinking, of course, but we may also be reassured by returning to all our old habits – even the ones that involve going to the office with a sneeze.

The normalcy of my newfound normality does mask a new fear of what the future holds (I’m talking to someone about this), but otherwise it may be an important stage in escaping a bad experience. I wanted to prove to myself that I had recovered, and a good benchmark is to stay as close to the previous situation as possible. Maybe now that I’ve done it, the way is open to make changes.

Although June 27 is just a coincidental date – in another hospital I may have received my diagnosis on a different day, or under other circumstances I may have found the lump weeks or months earlier, I imagine that now will always be a time to think. On that note, no matter how I live the rest of my life, I don’t think it will ever be a normal day.



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