Holding on to Normal

How I Survived Cancer and Made It to the Other Side, Happier, Healthier and Stronger

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About The Book

A compelling memoir about trying to live meaningfully with illness and triumph beyond it, by breast cancer survivor Alana Somerville, a teacher and mother of two young children.

I looked at all the sick people around me. Was I going to be like them? Was that already me? Did I suddenly have a time stamp on my life? Would I make it out of this alive?

Alana Somerville—wife, teacher and mother of two small children—was thirty-three years old when she was diagnosed with stage-two, triple-negative breast cancer. The diagnosis changed her world and the relationships she had with everyone around her. Suddenly she was faced with endless medical appointments, multiple surgeries and procedures, the challenges of chemotherapy, and all the decisions involved in her treatment. She also had to deal with the trauma of realizing that her support network—sometimes even her closest friends—could struggle with how to help or even how to react to her anymore.

Throughout the course of her illness, Alana learned to maneuver through the medical system, to advocate for herself, and to build a truly supportive network. She also discovered how to keep her positive spirit intact while undergoing a double mastectomy and ongoing treatment. She is now living cancer-free—a survivor and an advocate.

Alana’s story is not unique. It’s a story that will resonate with anyone who has suffered illness and found themselves navigating a whole new world upon diagnosis. This is an “everywoman’s” journey through the experience of cancer, tracing the emotional, physical and psychological steps that are common to all. In the end, this memoir will offer hope that one can live a healthy, fulfilling and happy life beyond diagnosis. Holding on to Normal is for anyone who is suffering—or knows someone who is suffering from—a setback in life, and who is looking for inspiration on how to navigate their own journey.

Excerpt

Holding on to Normal PROLOGUE


Everything changed the summer of 2010.

We had just returned from a week at our friend’s cottage up north near Haliburton, Ontario—my husband, Greg; our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Charley; our six-month-old son, Rudy; and me. We normally would go up north at least once or twice a summer. We would fish, jump off the dock, swim in the river and have bonfires at night.

The time away had been wonderful, as usual, especially because it allowed me to step away from my life at home, which always seemed so busy. I’m the type of person who can’t sit still. Whenever I do, a little voice in my head runs through all the things I could be or should be doing. I’ve always found it impossible to leave things until another day. Going up north forced me to do just that. Even the kids had extra eyes on them, so I could relax and breathe in a way I could never do at home. And I’d also begun weaning Rudy, cutting out a couple of feedings during the day and replacing them with formula. The new routine seemed to be working well for both of us.

Basically, my life was perfect. I had everything I had ever wanted. I was married, with two beautiful children. My husband and I had built a house with a pool in a quiet little neighborhood with great neighbors. I was the only one out of three children in my family whose first house was a brand-new one. I had a job as a teacher, loved my work colleagues and had good ties with friends. I was healthy, Greg was healthy, my kids were healthy.

Two years before our cottage trip, though, I began questioning things. Could my life really be going so well? What if there was a threat I couldn’t see? While it sounds weird in retrospect, I think I had a gut feeling that someday something would go wrong. In 2008, when I was thirty-one years old, I decided I needed to have a mammogram.

Of course my doctor questioned my reasoning. “Why do you want to do that? Do you have a family history?” he asked.

That was reasonable. In fact, I had no family history of breast cancer other than a maternal great-aunt who’d had it. And my doctor didn’t actually consider that to constitute a family history.

“I realize I’m way too young to get breast cancer, and I’m very low risk,” I said. I also knew that breastfeeding my daughter for nine months reduced my breast cancer risk. And I ate healthily, I exercised, and I didn’t smoke.

So why did I want to have a mammogram?

“I’ve heard that having a baseline record of breast health could be useful if anything ever comes up in the future,” I said.

My doctor nodded, not entirely convinced, but at least listening. In the end, he sent me to a breast screening clinic at the local hospital for a mammogram. “Just so you know,” he warned, “it might hurt a bit. You okay with that?”

“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

He was right. It did hurt a bit. But it wasn’t so bad, at least for me. The end result? My breasts were a little dense, which is common in young women. Most important, though, they were normal. Wonderful! That was exactly what I wanted to hear, and I felt reassured. Life truly was great.

And life remained great two years later. After we returned home from the cottage, the whole family settled into our usual routine. As I continued to wean Rudy, my breasts produced less milk. Rudy still woke for his regular four A.M. feeding, and the night everything changed—Saturday, August 21, 2010—was no exception. As I picked Rudy up and placed him on the pillow on my lap, I eased into the routine of feeding. I always felt lucky to have the bonding experience of breastfeeding, something that fathers miss out on—although I would have preferred to bond at a more reasonable hour of the day.

I cuddled Rudy’s body close to mine, soaking in that special baby smell as he nursed. I looked down at his satisfied little face, and I couldn’t help but smile. He looked just like my daughter, Charley, had as a baby and yet was himself. I shifted him and that’s when my world stopped.

I felt a lump in my breast.

Reading Group Guide

Holding on to Normal
Alana Somerville
Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Holding on to Normal includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

A compelling memoir about trying to live meaningfully with illness and triumph beyond it, by breast cancer survivor Alana Somerville, a teacher and mother of two young children.

I looked at all the sick people around me. Was I going to be like them? Was that already me? Did I suddenly have a time stamp on my life? Would I make it out of this alive?

Alana Somerville—wife, teacher and mother of two small children—was thirty-three years old when she was diagnosed with stage-two, triple-negative breast cancer. The diagnosis changed her world and the relationships she had with everyone around her. Suddenly she was faced with endless medical appointments, multiple surgeries and procedures, the challenges of chemotherapy, and all the decisions involved in her treatment. She also had to deal with the trauma of realizing that her support network—sometimes even her closest friends—could struggle with how to help or even how to react to her anymore.

Throughout the course of her illness, Alana learned to maneuver through the medical system, to advocate for herself, and to build a truly supportive network. She also discovered how to keep her positive spirit intact while undergoing a double mastectomy and ongoing treatment. She is now living cancer-free—a survivor and an advocate.

Alana’s story is not unique. It’s a story that will resonate with anyone who has suffered illness and found themselves navigating a whole new world upon diagnosis. This is an “everywoman’s” journey through the experience of cancer, tracing the emotional, physical and psychological steps that are common to all. In the end, this memoir will offer hope that one can live a healthy, fulfilling and happy life beyond diagnosis. Holding on to Normal is for anyone who is suffering—or knows someone who is suffering from—a setback in life, and who is looking for inspiration on how to navigate their own journey.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the way in which the book is structured. Do you find that the short chapters make it easier to read about Alana’s experience of living meaningfully with her cancer diagnosis?

2. Near the beginning of the book, Alana wonders, “What is the right way to respond to the news that someone has a lump that may or may not be cancerous?” People respond in two ways: by saying things are going to be okay or changing the subject. Both come across as superficial or uncaring. How would you respond to Alana’s news?

3. Alana writes, “I divide my life into two parts: before I was diagnosed with breast cancer and after.” How has her life changed, and what remains the same after the diagnosis? How have you responded to difficult situations in your life?

4. Throughout the book, Alana advocates for the power of positive thinking. How does she use positive thinking to get through difficult experiences?

5. After Alana is diagnosed with cancer, she decides to read and educate herself about her disease and breast cancer in general. How does this help Alana understand her condition? In what ways does this process allow Alana to prepare for the diagnosis?

6. Alana writes about her first chemotherapy treatment in detail, and gives insight into an aspect of cancer that is often ignored. How does Alana’s transparency affect your perception of cancer and its treatment?

7. Alana is so strong throughout her treatment but admits, “what … I couldn’t handle was having my hair fall out.” How does Alana cope with the loss of her hair, and why is it so difficult for her to lose it? What have you found surprising about difficult situations you’ve been in?

8. Describe the effect that going shopping for a wig has on Alana. What prompts her to seek out the experience, and why do you think she takes Charley with her?

9. When Alana attends the Relay for Life event, she finds it difficult to join the “survivors group”. Why doesn’t she feel like she belongs? How does she feel different from the other survivors?

10. Discuss the significance of the title. In what ways does Alana hold on to normalcy in her life, and why does she find it so important to maintain that normalcy?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. All the new cancer patients at the Juravinski Cancer Centre get a quilt and knit squares, which become quilts. Gather your friends and make a small quilt to donate to a breast cancer awareness organization such as JCC.

2. Alana describes the pre-chemo waiting room as being “like a party, with music playing.” Create a playlist of upbeat and inspirational songs to play in the background of your book club that would cheer up someone battling an illness.

3. Alana takes strength and courage from reading a memoir written by an athlete who survived cancer. What are some of your favourite books that have inspired and motivated you?

About The Author

Photograph by Marty Pilato

Alana Somerville is a mother of two, teacher, and real-estate sales representative. Never one to sit still, when she isn’t teaching, she can likely be found with her children at a hockey arena, dance rehearsal or soccer field. Her children are her number one priority, and her drive for life is greatly inspired by them. Holding on to Normal is her first book. Visit her at AlanaSomerville.com or follow her on Twitter @AlanaSomerville.

 

 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 2018)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501168123

Raves and Reviews

“A captivating and riveting read that inspires and instills hope. I urge everyone to read it.” 

– Elizabeth Hurley, actress and breast cancer spokesperson

“This memoir resonates with its tales of strength and sacrifice—something  all mothers experience and will understand. It is a beguiling and hope-filled read that . . . will make you cry with sympathy and laugh with understanding.”

– Sarah Bauemler, designer and co-host, Bryan Inc.

“Provides the inspiring message that the new ‘normal’ of life during and after cancer can actually be a blessing.”

– Nicholle Anderson, 2017 Hockey Fights Cancer Ambassador

“A fierce testament to the power of self-determination in one’s cancer journey.”

– Brenda Copps, assistant clinical professor at McMaster University and family physician

“It is one thing to live through a difficult cancer journey with courage, aequinimitas, and humour, but a totally different thing to write about the experience with such wisdom, insight and conviction. This book provides a patient’s look into the world of cancer, treatment and rehabilitation that would be helpful to other patients and their families. . . . [and] provides an accessible look at the patient experience for all healthcare workers.”

– DR. ROBIN C. WILLIAMS, Special Advisor to the MOHLTC (Ontario)

“An inspiring journey through adversity [that] shows us how to find the bright spot during dark days, to see the humour in the obstacles that life throws our way, and how positivity can conquer fear.”

– SHERRY TORKOS, author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine

“Hundreds of thousands of women get breast cancer every year and few know what to anticipate. This . . . should provide a great deal of comfort for them.”

– Ronen Avram, reconstructive breast surgeon, MD, FRCSC

Resources and Downloads

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