Loss of the “Old Normal”


Mental Health
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  • Accepting the changes in your life after a colon or rectal cancer diagnosis can be difficult.
  • Many people who are able to process losses and adjust to a “new normal” report high levels of life satisfaction, good quality of life and overall happiness.
  • There are many resources available for patients and caregivers to help in coping with changes associated with cancer.

After a cancer diagnosis, once treatment is underway, patients often have to face a “new normal.” We talked to Ali Schaffer, a licensed clinical social worker, to learn more.

Q: Can you explain the importance of acknowledging the loss of the “old normal” to make room for the new?

A: For many people, a cancer diagnosis represents a significant event in life that impacts many areas of life. Furthermore, a cancer diagnosis leads to many immediate as well as ongoing changes that can be challenging to both understand and adjust to and may often raise many questions:

  • Who am I now that I have cancer?
  • What’s changed?
  • What’s not changed?
  • What does this mean for my future?
  • Will I ever feel like myself again?

Connecting with honest feelings about the impact of a cancer diagnosis, including losses, can be the first step towards healing, acceptance and integration.

By acknowledging what is happening and processing the actual feelings and experiences, individuals can begin to move forward and tap into their natural coping mechanisms which will support the adjustment to a cancer diagnosis over time.

As hard as it might be, a willingness to let go of life before cancer creates the opportunity to embrace and create life after cancer. Many people who are able to process losses and adjust to a “new normal” report high levels of life satisfaction, good quality of life, and overall happiness.

There are many resources available to provide support, information, and connection to others living with cancer including support groups, skills/education classes, conferences, and online groups. Additionally, many people benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional for individual support to further process their feelings and adjustment with their own diagnosis that allows them to embrace their “new normal.”

Q: What are some ways friends and family members can embrace the “new normal” of their loved one?

Ali Schaffer
Ali Schaffer, licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice in Nashville, TN

A: One of the best ways friends/family can support a loved one is to directly acknowledge your desire to be supportive to their personal experience of cancer, even if you’re not exactly sure what to say. Acknowledge the “elephant” in the room and let them know you care and it is safe to talk to you. This shows a willingness to be present and supportive, even if it’s uncomfortable.

A cancer diagnosis can impact all areas of life, including relationships/friendships, and your loved one may be afraid you’ll leave or won’t be able to “handle it.” Therefore, it is important to both communicate and demonstrate your steady presence and commitment to the relationship.

It’s important to understand that the adjustment to cancer and a “new normal” is an ever-changing experience that your loved one may be coming to understand in their own time frame and may not know how to communicate to others.

Remember, your loved one is more than their cancer diagnosis and may likely be trying to figure out their emotions and the impact of cancer as well as trying to figure out how to maintain some normalcy and routine in life. And, it’s important to process how the diagnosis of cancer is impacting you so you can be aware of your own emotions and responses and not inadvertently project them onto your loved on.

For a variety of reasons, not all relationships successfully weather a cancer diagnosis; but you can take steps that will help you stay connected and may even positively impact and strengthen the quality of your relationship. Some ways to stay connected with your loved one:

  1. Reach out with specific invitations or offers of support/help such as: “I’d like to bring you coffee/tea--what day is good for you this week?” “Can I drive you to your medical appointment this week?”
  2. Keep including your loved one in plans with things you did prior to the diagnosis; “We’re all going to yoga on Tuesday, would you like to come with us?” “I can’t wait to see you at monthly book club next week.”
  3. Acknowledge that you want to be supportive and will follow their lead on whether they would like to talk about cancer, or not. Offer to listen if they want to talk. And make sure to actually listen, not fix.
  4. Want to start a conversation? Ask open-ended questions that create space and an opportunity for your loved one to talk about what’s really on their mind.


Use the comment section below, we want to hear your answer to this question.

About Ali: Ali Schaffer is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice in Nashville, TN and provides individual and group therapy for adults navigating life transitions, coping with health challenges and desiring to live more fully.

4 thoughts on “Loss of the “Old Normal”

  1. Having read this I thouhght it was rather informative.
    I appreciate yoou tzking the time and effort tto put this information together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both
    reading and commenting. But so what, itt was still wortgh it!

  2. I absolutely agree with Kate but for different reasons. By talking about a “new normal” it feels to me like there is an implication of no cure. Yet, I am an example of a cure and except for periodic testing, my life is back to it’s previous vibrancy… So, for me, this whole concept of a “new normal” feels like a giving up, and I’m glad I didn’t read this while I was in treatment as I feel it may have affected my relentless attitude that I was going to beat this! I hope with all my heart that Kate finds positive changes real soon!

  3. The use of the phrase the ‘new normal’ is just so incorrect and so far from what most of us colorectal patients experience as to be offensive to all of us. The term ‘normal’ implies the same, predictable and something that is common and is repeated regularly. The constant and ever changing nightmare for colorectal patients is the unpredictable nature of what happens when. You can’t predict the worst days it and you can never reliably repeat the less bad days. You can eat the same thing at the same time for days on end and get completely different results so there is absolutely no new normal and this term should be banned from any discussion about post bowel cancer function. Find a more accurate term to use.

    1. Hi, Kate. Thanks for your comment. “New normal” is a term we often hear in our focus group discussions with those touched by colorectal cancer, which is why we use the term within some resources. We do understand that it may not be an accurate term for everyone – and it doesn’t fully encompass the challenges and unpredictability that someone may face day to day. If you have a suggestion for an additional phrase or word that encompasses the shift from “pre-diagnosis” to “post-diagnosis,” please let us know!

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