So You Have Cancer, How Do You Really Feel?


How do we define how we feel and answer the question, "How do you feel?"

I’m asked with some regularity about how I’m feeling with my cancer. The question is usually softened a bit with a hopeful smile from those doing the asking, and I appreciate that. Nobody wants to hear bad news after all, and I’m certainly not keen on sharing any.

And so I always say “I’m doing well. I’m fine.”

But the truth is, I’m sometimes awakened at night with a tightness that stretches across my left shoulder, from the breast bone past my chest to the midway point under my armpit. And where it ends there is a pool of numbness, a dead area in which the nerves that were severed during my mastectomy have no link to follow and no place to arrive with the messages they once carried.

But not many people I know want to hear all that. It’s easier by far to say “I’m doing well. I’m hopeful and positive about the future. I’m fine.”

And though it’s a pretty pasteurized answer to what can be a sincere question, it’s often the right choice. Those of us surviving cancer have stories and experiences that folks in the “ordinary” world would find hard to relate to. Ours is a life whose road map has become faded and unreadable, and we are forever struggling to find our way home in zero visibility weather, always in search of a pathway by which to be healed.

We simply live in a different reality in our disease as we work to normalize our lives as best we can. After all, it’s in returning to the simple things that once gave us stability in which we find comfort. I long for the days when I can start a project (in my case writing a musical about male breast cancer) without a care about whether or not I have time to finish it.

It’s not always easy to share those sorts of thoughts with friends and family who ask the simple question, “How are you doing?”

There have been numerous studies and inquisitions into what it is cancer survivors would like to be asked, but most people feel understandably awkward about inquiring on a disease that has the potential to take our lives. So, in casual conversation, too much information may be overwhelming.

I deal with pain of one sort or another every day. But the pain of life is very different from the pain of disease, and the rift between the two is sometimes lost in the distraction of simply surviving. So, when I’m asked about how I feel with my cancer I find it helpful for others when I focus on the pain of life, the mutual issues that we all can relate to--and there are many. But I always end by sharing my view of the joy of life. Even when it hurts, I believe in the intrinsic value of each of our experiences.

There is a place in our lives, a central space, where people with cancer find a sort of equilibrium and balance. It’s a safe haven that settles in where fear and uncertainty once lived; it’s a shelter between forthrightness and uptightness; it is there that we recognize those endless, unknowable moments that give us every reason to keep moving. And most importantly, it’s in this very place where we ultimately become unquestionably…fine.

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