Cancer and the New Normal

My mother has Primary Peritoneal Carcinoma, a cancer that is related to ovarian cancer in the same obscure way that practically everyone is related to some uncle of unknown origin who shows up for holiday dinners. After my mother was diagnosed, we repeatedly heard a similar chunk of wisdom from people with less hair than her: “You will eventually find your new normal.”

They were right. Somewhere in the rush of appointments and hospitalizations and the drip drip drip of healing poisons, my mother has come to see it all as a part of her normal. What we did not know then, though, was that this new normal, while a comfort, is anything but predictable.

There are days when chemo looks like a minimal nuisance at worst—a hair-thinner and waist trimmer, but nothing too monumental. On those days, my mom tries to sneak off to the casino for a little entertainment. She takes a small bit of change, plays for about an hour, and then enjoys a light meal at one of the restaurants. Were it not for her turban and the way she snakes around the casino so as to avoid the smoking sections, nobody would even suspect she had cancer. She comes home exhausted, but feeling triumphant. For a few short hours, her new normal feels remarkably similar to the normal cancer stole from her.

Then there are the days when she wears CANCER like a moniker slathered upon her entire personhood. She texts me something that seems a bit off. Sometimes she gets some aspect of my name wrong. Other times, she sends a simple, “Not feeling well” followed by gibberish. Text gibberish has become my greatest confidant. It tells me to drop everything and head over to check on her.

Text gibberish warned me of both times she required hospitalization and the times she thought she could drive but really could not. Text gibberish screams, “This is NOT a normal part of that new normal!”

Usually, on chemo Fridays, as we wait for the IV to flush and a hefty batch of poison to begin its ascent into her thin, knobby veins, we laugh and flip through magazines. We faithfully ignore the fact that we are surrounded by people who may or may not survive this experiment, herself on that list for others. Talking about the cancer itself, in those moments when cancer’s nemesis is attempting to annihilate it, feels somehow too intimate—like tenderly holding an enemy’s hand while slitting his throat. Nobody at chemo Fridays seems to talk about their cancers.

This is the new normal, though, and sometimes there is no avoiding speculation. While my mother recovers from chemo Fridays, languidly awaiting mercy in the form of relief from nausea and perhaps a bit of energy, we talk about the cancer. She pictures it clinging to her peritoneal cavity like tiny styrofoam balls to bare skin. How do we pick them all off, we wonder. Is there such a thing as a cancer vacuum powerful enough to get every last bit? We consider all the options for the future. We parse the past.

This is not the first time my mother has had to rise above a new normal. This is not the first time she has felt the triumph of a warrior’s victory one day and the sting of utter dominance another. It is not the first time we have faced seemingly insurmountable odds together. It is, however, the first time that her new normal is driven by cancer, an entity that is entirely lacking in normalcy.

We keep waiting for the moment when my mother’s medical care-givers make it clear to us that her experience is routine. We perch ourselves on the edges of our proverbial seats in hopes that one of them will patronize our concerns—the way pediatricians cock their heads sympathetically when a new parent brings their baby in for a slight cough. “Ah, sweetie,” we want the ER nurse to say in a sugary sweet voice, “We do this all day long. Nobody has ever died from cancer. I promise. You’ll be fine. Would you like a sticker?”

Instead, every visit is punctuated by the reality that this new normal could be the last new normal my mother ever knows, could be the one that forces me into a new normal I don’t want to face. “There are no guarantees,” the doctor reminds us each time he explains a new course of treatment. The oncology staff is careful not to include “see you later” in their good-byes. I make sure I say it, though, to practically shout for the whole office to hear, “See you next time!”

My mom chuckles when I do this. “You tell ’em,” she teases.

Then we walk out in silence. The new normal dictates silence after each direct encounter with the cancer. Silence out of respect for its sheer strength. Silence to convince the cancer that we fear it, that it need not further demonstrate its power over us. Silence to remind ourselves that the normal of cancer is that it is a bully and a bitch–a cruel mystery that never ceases to dismay those who live it and those who try and solve it.