Getting back to “normal” after diagnosis and treatment is a valued status that everyone faced with diagnosis yearns for. There are days of wishing you could rewind and other days where you feel like a total boss for getting through the emotional and physical stress and torment your body has withstood. And while life will never be the same normal as it used to be, sometimes it’s so far from how it used to feel that calling it “normal” feels fake and more like a joke. But fake or not, there’s still some kind of normal that we must live in each and every day as survivors.
Since I was a little girl, dance has been part of my life. It’s my normal. And while that will sound silly to many of you, dance was truly my constant during the many stages of development and learning on the way to becoming an adult, and actually since I became an adult as well. It was the place I escaped into when teenage life was too melodramatic or college stress became too much to bear. It’s the first thing I got back to after surgery, and the thing I was far too weak to do for months after treatment. It’s always been something that allows me to reach depths of my soul that I don’t know how to otherwise, and it connects me to music in this magical way to where I feel the melodies and lyrics in my bones. It’s special and always will be.
In April 2018, (6 months post-treatment) I was asked to take on the title Coach Val for the Samford University Dance Team. It was an easy yes, but it also came with a lot of doubt and literally zero confidence in myself to get the job done like I envisioned it should be. I love dance with all my guts, but I’d never taught a class and I suck at choreography. However, the Lord clearly saw me fit for the job or it wouldn’t have landed in my lap as it did, so I accepted.
Through band camp, two field shows during football season , Christmas break, and halfway through basketball season, we’ve made it. But Coach Val has had more moments of frustration with my body and ability than I can count. It has nothing to do with entering another decade of life this year either. It’s cancer and it’s radiation treatment, the gift that inevitably keeps on giving.
These days I fight through daily neck stiffness, very careful sleeping so I don’t wake up with a headache from a simple crick in my neck, arm and hand neuropathy from inflammation in my spinal cord, and overall lack of endurance and muscle strength that radiation robbed me of. I have to stretch the left side of my neck every morning and I have to treat my head like it might actually snap off if I’m not gentle enough.
Coach Val has 9 college beauties that depend on me to be there for them, teach them, grow them, and help them grow the dance team program as a whole. I have 9 girls that are likely looking for the same deep connections again that they had in their younger years and 9 girls that are likely desperate to find those feelings again in a new season of life. So, I do my best to ignore my “new normal” and waltz back into the life that made me the woman I am. I do my best to tap into the strength only the Lord can provide, and I do my best to continue to grow in my leadership and other skills that might enhance my girls’ lives. And I’m not going to pretend it’s easy.
I haven’t truly danced from my heart since treatment, but it finally happened this weekend. As I hobbled into the house and embraced my husband in near tears, all I could say was “I’m just not what I used to be anymore.”
I was physically exhausted. My muscles were dead, the numb sensation in my arms and hands felt amplified as it usually does when I get hot and anxious, and my neck just felt fragile. Was I physically just fine? Yep. But the emotions are what sock me in the stomach the hardest. It’s when the “whys” resurface and the longing for a “rewind” button get to me, that I break and need picking up again.
Y’all, I don’t say it often, because I am wholeheartedly thankful for this journey and what it’s taught me, but goodness, cancer changes you big time.
I like to think I’m better for being a cancer survivor. And somedays I am. But other days I fail miserably at being a decent human. I like to think eventually it will make me a better wife, a better mom, friend, and coach after more of the dust settles and we get a little further out from treatment.
But the truest thing of all that applies to every aspect of my life is I’m simply not like I used to be. Sure, no one stays the same, but this wasn’t gradual. And I didn’t ask for this.
But it’s my normal now and today (and hopefully tomorrow too) I’m going to choose to be ok with that.