Survivors and Patients With Cancer: How Healthy Are You?

September 15, 2016

Confronted by a simple question, this cancer patient finds a new perspective on health.

I make no mistake about being one of the lucky ones. I may have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, but I am hanging in there with treatments that will work as long as they can, and then we’ll do something else.

A couple of days ago, I was reminded of how fortunate I am when I enrolled in an exercise program for cancer survivors. I’d made it clear ahead of time that I was not a survivor, I am a patient, and would continue to be a patient and would never really have the label “survivor” applied to my life. The coordinator, with a straight face and knowing my diagnosis, posed the question, “How healthy are you?”

Like all patients everywhere, I have been asked a lot of questions — mostly to do with pain intensity, and often with a chart of pained-to-smiling faces raised to eye level — and I don’t consider any of them offensive or strange. I know the people asking have either been instructed to ask, or have found the information helpful, or both. I didn’t find anything wrong with this question, I just didn’t know how to answer it.

Maybe you’ve been asked a similar question? It was a first for me.

I was silent for a few seconds and looked at the young woman posing the question. She was fit, for sure, and had to be kind to be trying to help cancer patients up their own fitness levels. I answered at last, “I really don’t know how to answer that question.”

She met me with silence that lasted until I continued, “I feel good, but the fact is that I have metastatic cancer.” I paused for another few seconds and continued, “I eat pretty well and I exercise almost every day.”

“So how healthy do you feel?” she then asked.

“I feel good. I feel healthy,” I said.

“Okay, then I’m putting you down as very healthy.”

I liked her black-and-white way of looking at this question of health. She knew I had been given an unpleasant label with which to live, but she considered my actual living to be the more important part when answering the question. If I felt healthy then I was healthy. Now, we all know life isn’t that simple, but what a pleasant surprise to be confronted with a perspective of health that put cancer to the side.

Hearing her say, “I’m putting you down as very healthy,” and thinking about what she meant really stuck with me for the day. It is all too easy, with cancer treatments and the various medical side effects that go along with this disease, to forget that we are more than cancer. We are more than the effects of our disease.

Someone without cancer might think it’d be easy to remember that you are a person first, but I’ve found that it can be nearly impossible.

When I think about my relationships with friends and family, it’s sometimes awkward when they don’t ask about how I am doing. But when they do ask, we risk getting into a conversation about health that pretty much no one wants to repeat (or listen to) numerous times a day. I may be having a CT scan or a treatment, but do those things really, really, express how healthy I am? How happy I am?

No. No they don’t. I want to try to keep the simple answer forefront in my mind when I start to feel overwhelmed by living with cancer.

How healthy are you?

If I feel good, I’m going to start thinking of myself as healthy. Forget the “healthy, but…” mindset that is such an easy trap to fall into. There was no “but” in that woman’s eyes, and I can live with that perspective!


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