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Cancer Coping: The Question They Don't Want to Ask You

Do I want to be asked how I am doing? A six year breast cancer and three-year melanoma survivor ponders this question.
PUBLISHED October 25, 2016
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor, I sometimes wonder what to say when I hear this question: “So how are you?” Does the asker really mean it or is it the standard question that is always answered with “I’m fine, and you?” Do you dread or welcome that question as a cancer patient or survivor? Have your feelings about that question changed over time from the time of your diagnosis? It has for me.

Sometimes people don’t ask for a multitude of reasons, none of them sinister. Sometimes not inquiring feels hurtful to the cancer survivor. They may assume you are all better because you look all better. They may see you calm and smiling and not want to take you back there, as though the mere mention of cancer may make you burst into tears, dredge up unhappy memories (as though you’ve forgotten), or superstitiously make cancer rear its ugly head. 

  When I was in active treatment and more worried than I had ever been in my life, I welcomed the chances to talk about my cancer with my friends and family, and sometimes even strangers at the grocery store. For me, it felt like talking about cancer and commiserating about it helped get it out of spinning around in my head. Talking somehow minimized this big terrible thing that was happening to me. Right after treatment, when I was starting to look “normal” but was still exhausted and feeling anything but normal, I was sometimes a little frustrated when people wouldn’t inquire. I learned that it was my responsibility to bring my cancer up with friends and family if I needed to talk about it. That sounds reasonable, but it didn’t always feel reasonable to me.

Talking versus thinking. As the months turn to years, I am better able to think about my cancers less and less. Do I stop worrying? No, never. That is a luxury that cancer has forever taken away from me. Do I have triggers? Yes, sometimes they are the obvious ones like an upcoming oncology test or exam.

Sometimes the triggers are not obvious at all. Something small and unrelated to cancer will set off my worry brain and make me worry or wonder.  A pretty fall day could make me wonder if I will have the opportunity to be around for it in the future, or watching my husband blow out candles on his birthday cake, or anything really.

Talking about my triggers or writing in my journal about them helps. Sometimes the triggers just need to be acknowledged. Sometimes it would be nice to talk to someone, and other times it isn’t necessary. I think the triggers and occasional worries are part of cancer survivorship. There are times when I look at a worried thought and basically say, okay, you are real and now let’s get back to living the moment. Other times, it is something that requires a doctor appointment because it falls under the category of being vigilant.

As cancer survivors, we get some of each kind of worry. That is part of survivorship and time further out from diagnosis truly does help. So, how am I? I am here. I am grateful. I am taking it one day at a time. And, how are you?
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