You just never know when out on a run who you might come across and what they might teach you, if you just open your eyes, unplug from your electronic devices and look around.
At the time, it was one of the funniest moments I had out on a run in recent weeks. This past month, while in recovery from two major surgeries to remove the cancer, for some reason, I remembered and understood this moment. In the black abyss of pain, sorrow and anger, I finally got it.
I was on the corner waiting for the pedestrian light to flash. Most days, I am that runner that ignores the lights. That day, I was running from downtown and just enjoying my run, my life and my city. Life was good.
A moment later, an older woman joined me, and in my happy, running-through-daisies, sing-song tune, I turned to ask, "How are you today?"
"I'm f***ing terrible. The rain makes my back hurt."
I was stunned. I didn't know what to say so I muttered that I was sorry and that I thought it would clear up. Then, I jogged across the street to continue on my way.
That week, I told this story a dozen times to colleagues and running buddies (to many laughs). I couldn't believe a complete stranger was so raw and open to me.
In retrospect, what else could she say — that she was fine? What was it that made me so uncomfortable with the truth?
A story that made me laugh so hard back then could make me cry today. I am queen of the "everything's fine." The past three months, I have lived it. I'm tired of saying that I'm fine, that I'm myself, that I feel good, normal. In reality, I am nowhere close to fine or normal.
It has been a hard transition at work for me. I manage a health club — I'm the face to help people feel better, look better. I pick them up when they come in and hopefully send them off feeling better. They ask me endless questions about what classes or workouts I do, how I qualified for the Boston Marathon or what I eat to keep my energy.
Now, I walk across the parking lot into my club and I want to hide in the back because I'm afraid that a member is going to ask me how I'm doing and I'm not going to be able to pull off the "I'm fine." I might turn and tell them about the chronic pain and inflammation I have during the day, how I'm still battling infection in one of my five incisions, how I can barely pull my left leg up in any kind of position without using my hands or how I can't feel an entire part of my leg sometimes. I don't want to be a Negative Nancy, but it is exhausting trying to keep everybody else positive about my progress when really, I am not fine. I'm nowhere close to f***ing fine.
To an average person, I look just that — fine. To many cancer survivors, newly diagnosed patients and long-time fighters, I am doing fine. There are many people doing much worse. I do, however, fight my own battles on a daily basis.
If I was fine, I would get up at 5 a.m. to run seven miles, shower without my special antibacterial soap and I wouldn't have to re-bandage everything. I would throw on anything I felt like wearing — my cute jean shorts, my orange ones or whatever called to me that day. I wouldn't put the dreadful hospital-grade nude sleeve on my leg. I wouldn't have to wear a dress or skirt in case the swelling hits while I'm at work. If I was fine, I wouldn't be thinking about my odds of recurrence or life expectancy.
I haven't quite figured out my "new fine." Right now, I am watching for signs of lymphedema, draining from one of my five incisions and trying to schedule all my appointments, scans, MRIs. I'm trying to move forward in this new fine. I am praying before brain MRIs, blood work and everything else — praying that my family will have me for as long as they need me.
I think back to that woman on the corner and I wish I had been more aware and less self-absorbed. Maybe I would have noticed her in visible pain. Maybe I could have offered her an arm across the street. I don't know. Maybe she just needed someone to hear her. Maybe next time tells me they're "fine," I'll look into their eyes and see which kind of 'fine' they really mean.
Hi, Kate. Good article. As a second-time cancer survivor, I fully understand.
Sure, I want to simply shrug off the "How are you, today?" question with a simple "I'm fine", and go on with my life. BUT, the bald head kinda gives away the fact that something else is going on! In the '60's, in college, my hair was below my collar, and approaching my collar-blades as much as my parents could/would tolerate (they were paying the college bills, so concession was a better part of valor!); and I still keep my hair rather long, though it's above my collar, now.
My first cancer-journey was pretty invisible. Although I was away from home for a couple months, the proton radiation for prostate cancer gave me no significant side-effects; and especially nothing noticable, from a distance. This second journey, however, is different. Treating the Multiple Myeloma involves chemotherapy, and back pain, loss of energy, loss of hair, loss of 50 pounds are noticable. And it's hard to pass off an "I'm fine" answer. I find myself answering one of two ways. I didn't contemplate either of these, they just came somewhat naturally, to me.
My first reply is "I've been better". I generally add, without only enough hesitation to let the other person wonder whether to follow up with another question, or not: "But, I've been (a lot) worse. And I'll be better, again". I find that this is a comfortable, and truthful, way to avoid a glib "I'm OK", and to maintain a positive attitude.
My other reply is to answer: "I'm better. I'm getting a little better, every day". I use this, most often with the friends and family who know more of my current status, rather than the casual acquaintances I meet at the bank, or the grocery store, or gas station, or. . .
I find both replies allow the other person to continue the conversation, for more information, if s/he wishes. Or to be happy with a short, meaningful answer. Most stop with the short answer. A few, however, do continue the conversations. -- For the record, I do find that I am comfortable sharing more information about myself and my disease and treatments, than many other people seem to care to share. But, as I see the treatments bringing me relief, hope, and perhaps healing, I want to share a positive, trusting attitude with others.
I hope this helps you, or another reader. Whether it does, or not, I'll continue to work and fight to be able to truthfully answer: "A little better today" . . .I'm fine with that answer!
The majority of people we come across in our daily lives have no idea what it means to live with cancer, the surgeries and treatments. It is normal for most people to answer with an "I'm fine" when asked how they are doing. It is people whom live with illness that contemplate this unrehearsed answer.
Since my surgeries and treatment with high dose IL-2, I have tried to redefine my new normal, my new fine. My original goal was to get back to the person I was before my cancer advanced to stage IV melanoma and the following surgeries and treatment. Then I came to realize that I am a different person than I was before and that that was ok. I don't need to get back to "who I was before" because life with cancer has changed who I am. I have a new "normal" and a new "fine". It takes time to find these new areas of equilibrium but you will get there when you are done healing and done tending to your scars.
Will, I like your answers, especially "I'm getting better every day" or "a little better today" but for those days that I feel stuck I think I'll use "I've been better" and leave it up to the person if they want to go further in depth with what is going on with me.
Thank you both for sharing.
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