When asked how they are, patients with cancer often find it simplest to say that they’re fine. Unfortunately, that may be far from the truth.
The best laugh we ever had in support group was about the word “fine.” This was shortly after we came up with a list of the emotional stages people go through during a cancer journey. The first stage, Rabbit Caught in the Headlights, is rather self explanatory — fear immobilizes us as we wait to be mowed down by cancer.
Then we hit the Doctor Bonding stage, when we’re in active treatment and feel that our docs are our best friends. We know all the terminology and where to park at the hospital.
It’s during this time that we also enter the Fine, Fine stage, meaning that’s what we answer when asked, “How are you?” It’s a question usually asked by someone you barely know at some kind of gathering that includes both good friends and people who are new to you. “I’m in treatment for breast cancer,” you might think. “How do you think I am?”
But you answer that you’re “Fine, fine.”
It’s easier than telling the truth, which is, “Well, I threw up for 18 hours yesterday until there was nothing in my stomach but bile while my 13-month old daughter wandered around the house and my husband looked on in horror. I feel possessed by drugs and think about dying a lot.”
That’s a great way to end a conversation in a hurry. The truth is it’s not what people want to hear and it’s not what we want to say, so we say we’re fine.
My support group always started off with a very exaggerated “How are you?” And someone would invariable say “fine” sarcastically, and then we would all howl and say, “Fine, we’re just fine. We have cancer and we’re just fine.”
It was our rallying cry and a great way to laugh. We also decided that our inside joke would be that FINE is an acronym:
You can fill in your own words. I was talking about FINE in Salt Lake City a few years ago and totally blanked on the second N. I was standing at the podium, mentally searching for the word, when a woman from the audience screamed: Neurotic!
The place cracked up. “Works for me,” I told the audience. This is your experience; you can choose any words you want.
So, from now on when you tell someone you are fine — or a friend says she’s fine — you can tell her what it stands for.
We aren’t fine and we shouldn’t be encouraged to ignore our feelings for a cliché. We are dealing with cancer and we need to be given permission not to be fine.