As most of you know well, my own health can be very unreliable, and if I’m honest it is something I get fed up with talking about in a social setting. Unfortunately the fact is that I will never have normal health now, and will always be reliant on hospital care at some stage, and this post is prompted by some conversations I have had recently whilst doing my support work. When meeting people for the first time it is usual to explain what connection you have with cancer, to help you understand their experience. This I have done, which has prompted numerous conversations later about how no one would know what I have been through and how well I look. Everyone is very kind and well meaning, and actually I think I do it to others too, but it can be quite tiresome!
Cancer is now my life, and I have chosen to do the work I do, but I still struggle when people ask me how I am. I really don’t want to provoke a discussion, both for them and me, as unfortunately there is always something to talk about regarding my health! I feel that this is a major factor in slowly withdrawing from my previously busy social life, as I am finding it more difficult dealing with this particular issue. One of my ambitions when I was first diagnosed, was to ensure that I wasn’t defined by my disease, but it seems here I have failed miserably.
Wherever I go people know my story, and if I’m not asked about my own health I am asked about something else which is cancer related. The disease has not only consumed my health but it totally dominates my working life too, although to be fair I have allowed that side of things to happen! When you hear that cancer is life changing, they are not joking. It’s yet another thing in life that is hard to understand and explain unless you have experienced it. Again, we are all affected differently, and I do have friends that ‘outwardly’ have recovered from their cancer experience, and are uncomfortable talking about it now, I am aware it is one subject not to mention in conversation. Personally I haven’t been able to be so disciplined, but I guess that is because they have completely finished their treatment, and mine is ‘work in progress.’
I have asked myself many times if the work I do might hold me back from trying to move on, but I have come to the conclusion that I will never be able to do that, as I will be forever in treatment of one kind or another, so cancer is with me to stay, whether I like it or not. But what is the answer to this? If people don’t ask how you are you may consider them rude and uncaring? Like most of us it is the first thing I ask people when I see them, but actually I do have a genuine interest in the answer! Maybe that is something else that cancer has taught me? After some time I took to the standard reply of “I’m fine,” and my wife asked me afterwards, why did you say that, you are not fine? It took me a long time to get her to understand that I was no longer comfortable constantly discussing my complex issues with people who although very caring, just didn’t need to know the whole story.
This problem is one that many of my cancer peers face regularly, and is discussed at great length in hospital waiting rooms up and down the country. Most of us have come to the same conclusion, and use the “I’m fine” solution. One of my very talented friends even wrote this piece about it for me. I have shared this previously in a guest post I have written, but felt after recent conversations I have had, I needed to share it again. It had a massive impact on me when it was written and is still so relevant today. My grateful thanks to you Alan!
“How are you?” everyone asks, “I’m fine”
“You are looking well” everyone says, “Yes, I’m fine”
“How’s it all going?” some people say, “Oh, I’m fine”
“You must be strong” people say, “Oh I’m fine”
The simplest of phrases that won’t let you know, all the pain and the fears that I don’t want to show.
I can’t tell you I cry when I sit on my own, and that my mind is in turmoil, I don’t want you to know.
My body’s in pain and it just won’t subside, and I feel like I have left my life far behind
If I told you these things, how could you see, your world is so far from my reality.
It’s falling to pieces inside of my head, so I tell you “I’m fine” as this puts it to bed.
You smile as I say it and you look so relaxed, so I’ll say it each time when you venture to ask, “I’m fine”
How do you deal with being asked constantly about your health, do you side step it and move on? Do you ask people how they are with a genuine interest, or do you feel that is a stock courtesy greeting for us, that no longer requires any in depth reply? As always your views and experiences are much appreciated, so please feel free to share them below.
Whenever I go out, which isn’t very often these days, people say “how are you” and I find myself having to make a split second decision. Do I just say “I’m ok thanks” or do I tell the truth? Did they ask how I was because they genuinely wanted to know or was it just out of politeness? Do they really want to hear my answer or will they shut off the moment I open my mouth and start talking about how life is for me after 6+ years since cancer entered my life?
Cancer dominates my life, not just because of the long term side effects of my treatment but also because of my involvement in the cancer support and awareness work I do, much the same as it does with you, Chris.
We have control over some of that because we choose to do what we do but the rest is beyond our control and so we have to learn to live with that. Sadly, people who have not been affected by cancer don’t understand just how much it takes away from your life and also how much control over your life it has, even many years on.
When I have spoken about my health issues I usually get “but you had cancer years ago” – I just don’t have the energy to explain everything these days so now when most people ask how I am I just say “I’m doing ok” – I know by now the ones who are genuinely concerned and really do want to know and so we go for a coffee and have a good chat. They are very often people with their own health issues so we both know where we stand.
Only those closest to us know the real truth about how we feel. xx
I understand where you are coming from totally Kaz, it can be physically and emotionally exhausting, just trying to understand what sort of response the other person was looking for.
You make a good point about us choosing to work in the field of cancer support. For me this work dominates my life now, and it would be difficult to walk away. Even if I did, it wouldn’t make me think about it any less.
It’s great now as I show very few physical symptoms so people tend not to ask about it, so that is great. Even when doing my work it is all about others really, so I have little time to think about my own situation.
Like you, my close friends know what is happening so that is the important thing. I think many of us have the experience to deal with these issues now, but it is difficult for people who are new to the experience. Thx as always for sharing your personal experiences to help others Kaz! xx
Hi Chris, I don’t take my health for granted but if people ask how I am in a cancer related sense I tell them I’m fit and well and six years clear. It’s what they seem to want to hear and , in my case, is essentially the truth. It’s what I told my GP at a check-up earlier this week! Only to her I added, “As far as I know.” That’s my only nod to the unknown. I’m surrounded by cancer – literally with one neighbour’s young child and another neighbour’s mother – because I’m not in work at the moment due to summer break so my time is mainly spent immersed in all things womb cancer for UK charity Action on Womb Cancer. This goes for my evenings / weekends around my job, which I’m so lucky to still be able to do, and now extends to taking unpaid time out of work to attend things like Cancer52 meetings. Spending my time raising awareness, giving support and fundraising is very much a personal choice, but also something I can’t envisage giving up unless I absolutely have to. It means too much to me. So if anyone asks me what I’m up to rather than how I am, they soon wish they’d asked after my health as the answer’s always something involved to do with cancer!! Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Deb xx
That made me smile, Deb! Actually as with Kaz and myself, the cancer support work is a real; positive focus for us I believe? My own Consultant was worried at one time that it was emotional pressure but I feel I would be worse off without it.
Normally when asked how I am I say “miraculously still here,” which seems to stop the conversation in it’s tracks! You ladies do incredible work for others, and again as with Kaz I think we all have the experience we need to be able to deal with these things now. I too am surrounded by cancer and of course my new charity has thrown me further into it, but that feeling of being able to help someone by using our own experience is wonderful.
Thanks for sharing Deb and for all you do for others. It makes a big difference! Chris xxx
Hi Chris, To most people I lie and say “I’m fine, how are you?” in recognition that they feel obliged to ask but don’t really want to know & certainly don’t want to hear anything other than ‘fine’. For example My work colleagues an manager are unaware that I’ve been in treatment for four months. I’ve become very good at being “fine” and masking what’s really happening and I’ve been lucky to be on a gentle enough regime that allows that facade. To the few close friends I can be more open but I don’t want my disease to dominate our friendship any more than necessary so often downplay what’s happening. It’s difficult to get a balance.
That’s exactly what I used to do Dee. Most people don’t want to hear about regular problems really, let alone anything cancer related. I really feel for you with the work situation, because there are times when we would like to unload.
It really is a very difficult balance to strike, and I’m not sure if I have even found the answer after all this time. I guess that cancer has now become my work and people are genuinely interested in all the things I am lucky enough to do. My world is far from humdrum like many of my friends. But then of course they always ask how I am and am I doing too much?
Like most things around cancer, you end up finding what works for you. Best as always to you and thanks for sharing your personal experiences. Hope all goes well xx
Why, I’m fine, of course! (ha!)
It gets easier, it’ll be a long time but it does get easier
Thx Alex, that’s good to hear.
Hi Chris and everyone else here.
I so enjoy your blogs Chris tho I don’t always write to say, and I find everyone’s comments somehow make me feel less alone as we all share so much.
‘I’m fine’ strikes such a cord. I say ‘I’m fine when i recognize that people aren’t really interested. Or don’t have the time or are so tied up in their own lives that they use this formal greeting ‘how are you?’ automatically. which in turn can generate an automatic response perhaps? Here in the north people say ‘yo alright?’ Its the same, its just a thing people say. I used to say ‘yes I’m very well thank you, how are you?’ In a very southern British accent!
I think we live in times when the lack of genuine compassion and kindness of wanting to know how someone truly is has become a rare thing. I think people who have experienced cancer are at an advantage here because we do genuinely care about one another and all the people in our lives. We’ve learnt to be interested in others well being. We have learnt what it means to be and receive kindness and compassion. Its a difficult journey but our lives have been made so much richer through the experience of good and poor communication and kindness.
I’m not sure though if I were you Chris or others working in this field it may become tiresome perhaps. Its a great question and one that I shall ponder on as I begin my new job with homeless people. I will be more conscious when I ask how they are and perhaps respond I’m fine?
‘Are you?’ What does it really mean to say ‘I’m fine’?
Thanks Chris and best wishes for the week!
Hi Tricia, lovely to hear from you. Firstly I’m so pleased you are enjoying the blogs. I understand totally about commenting frequently. We all see so much on social media now and it is difficult to respond even if the pieces are so interesting. The first thing is I’m pleased to know that people read the blogs, but if we can share experiences it is a great help to others as you know from your own experiences.
You make so many valid points, and I think you are right about living in a different age now. There seems to be less personal contact and we certainly have our North/South divide there as down here we rarely talk to other people 🙂
What you say about people affected by cancer is also very true, we totally understand kindness and compassion. I think the day that I find doing this work becomes tiresome is the day I will stop, but I don’t think I can see that happening.
I wish you well in your new work and please stop by soon, to let me know how it is going. Have a great week Tricia 🙂
I don’t know how I got here. I was reading poetry online. John Keats “my love has made me selfish” Next entry in Google was “cancer has made me selfish” and here I am…God bless all of you. How totally unselfish of you to share your stories.
A quick introduction. I am MK, not be confused with Michael Kors. Having said that. If I had his money, it would go to all your foundations
I am a police/fire dispatcher for the City of Chicago. Every day I listen to grief, misery, and loss due to violence. Im trained to handle it emotionally. BuT nothing has prepared me to deal with falling in love with a man with a brain tumour. We met 30 years ago as teens. Last year we reconnected and fell in love. He is not forthcoming with his health history and tells me only bits and pieces. I know this is his secoND year of radiation therapy. I call him Dr. FINE, after the Three Stooges skit. That’s his answer, I’m fine… Please suggest another way for a loved one to ask genuinely of their well’being.
I’m so scared for him. I have no one to share this with. He has told only a select few. I want to be the good place in his life. I can’t even cry in front of him. Should I seek a sup port group? Reading your stories has helped give me insight to what Dr Fine is feeling. I’m sorry if I went on too much.
Hi MK, joining a support group is a good idea, it will give you somewhere to ask questions and express your worries. If there isn’t a group you can attend then have a look for an online forum, I know from experience they can be a huge source of support, e.g., check for a group on Facebook if you use it. Wishing you and your partner all the best. Deb xx
Hi Mk, life sometimes has a strange way of showing us where we need to go, and delighted to welcome you to our Community. Dealing with emotions in your job is very different to what happens in your personal life, so I totally understand the issues you mention.
From experience, everyone has their own way of dealing with cancer, and I know that I didn’t want to frighten my wife by telling her some of the things I was going through. However after having several heart to hearts with her we reached a place where we both understood each others situation. In many cases it does make us selfish, which is why I wrote the piece.
It can take a long time for someone to open up, but personally I found that to be the best way, that I could deal with it emotionally. Once everyone understood what was happening I felt a lot less stressed trying to hide things. My prognosis was poor, but 9 years later I am still here running this site.
Everyone is different, but it will certainly be better for both of you if you can come through this together. Thanks also to Deb for her very sound advice. We wish you both the very best, and hope to see you back on the site soon. Chris