Apr 15, 2020 11:00 AM

Author: Valerie Green


From time to time, HCI invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of HCI.

Recently I caught the tail end of a radio interview with a psychologist discussing the effects of the “new normal” that has been thrust on all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve struggled with the term new normal when it is used with cancer patients and survivors. I rebelled against the new normal, because I want my old normal back.

I did not hear much of the interview, but it got me to thinking. There are many parallels between dealing with cancer and living through a pandemic.

Like cancer, this pandemic causes panic and fear. (At least cancer does not cause a toilet paper panic). It causes us to feel out of control and upends every part of our normal lives. Daily life as we knew it even a few weeks ago no longer exists.

Like cancer, this pandemic changes all of our projections and plans for the future. Nothing is certain about the future we worked so hard to plan for and believed we would experience. Perhaps we even took for granted a future with all the good things we had in mind.

Like cancer, this pandemic causes us to think about whether our lives are in order in case we should die from COVID-19. Is my will ready and my finances in order? How will my kids survive without me?

Like cancer, this pandemic does not have a quick fix. It is going to take some time.

Like cancer, this pandemic causes isolation. Social distancing is a reality for anyone fighting cancer, but now all of us are experiencing isolation.

Like cancer, this pandemic slows our pace and compels us to reevaluate how we spend our time. It forces us to focus on what really matters in our lives. It forces us off the hamster wheel of our crazy, busy, "important" lives and slows down our gait.

Like cancer, this pandemic can either strengthen the faith of those of us who worship or cause us to despair. We can strive for hope and reach to our Creator and our faith community for help or we can choose to live with constant worry and stress.

Like living with cancer, when you are living through this pandemic, you can choose to retreat into self-pity and fear or you can choose to find new ways of reaching out to others to encourage them.

Like cancer, this pandemic will take us through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each of us will experience these stages individually, within our local community, within our state, within our nation, and with the rest of the world.

Like living through cancer, when we get through this pandemic, we will need to decide what lessons we want to learn from it and how we want to live differently when it's all over. When I first got my treatment plan after diagnosis, I remember thinking, “I wish this was all over and I could know how it ends.” I find myself thinking the same thoughts about the pandemic.

However, before we can really think about the resumption of “normal” life after COVID-19, we have to figure out how to live each moment in the midst of the pandemic. We can't control cancer or pandemics, but we can choose how we live through the process.

Last January, someone sent me an article written by an oncologist about navigating the new normal of cancer. Her advice is that we instead call it “the new normal for now.” In reality, our expectations often don't match our real-life experiences. Our normal lives get interrupted every day by both wonderful and challenging things that are completely outside our control.

I would like to challenge each of us: How will you create your best new normal for now?

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