Thursday, March 27, 2008


“How are you feeling?” People ask me that all the time now – especially those I see only occasionally. Or “How ARE you?” said slowly and with emphasis. “Is everything ok?” is another common one. All of these are code for “What’s going on with your cancer?” They are not inappropriate questions. The people asking them truly care about me, and want to know how I’m doing. I guess none of us is all that sure just how best to ask. I’m not totally sure how to answer either. I usually respond with something pithy and upbeat like, “Feeling great! Totally back to normal,” to let them know that I know what they’re really asking about.

I appreciate their concern and interest, but the truth is, I wonder if I will ever return to being just me, or will I always and forever now be the girl who had cancer? When I was in treatment, there was an outpouring of support – cards, phone calls (my cell phone bills were out of control), gifts, and visits. Those have ended now, and truthfully, I miss them. It’s such a balancing act – all this stuff that comes along with a cancer diagnosis. Many of us want to return to “normal” as soon as possible and never have any reminder that we were ever “sick.” Others immerse themselves in their newfound cancer community or get really involved with serving the cause – raising money, promoting awareness or taking some kind of leadership role.

I am somewhere in-between, I guess. On the one hand, I write a monthly column about my experience as a single woman dealing with cancer, and there are certain aspects of this disease and its causes that I think about regularly. On the other hand, I am completely confident that I am ok, and I don’t worry about the cancer coming back or think about it on a daily basis. None of us really knows, of course. The cancer could come back anytime, or strike someone new who just the day before never dreamed they would be affected.

Many cancer survivors have said there is no longer any such thing as normal, that we must get accustomed to a new normal. That idea makes a lot of sense. Cancer brings gifts as well as hardships, and for most of us, our lives will never be the same. For some, survival brings a new lease on life, the end to a destructive relationship they didn’t have the courage to leave before, or the advent of a new passion to explore personally or professionally. For others, it brings only surgery scars, early onset menopause and depression. Most of us probably have some combination of both the gifts and the doubts.
What is normal anyway? Does such a thing exist? And if it does, who really wants to be “normal?”

Whatever they are, others’ questions help us know that someone cares. This has always especially been the case for me. I’m not sure exactly where it came from, but somewhere along the way, I developed the idea that people who don’t ask me personal questions, don’t care about me. I have discovered that this is not always the case, but the idea persists for me nonetheless. Probably I feel this way because that is how I let others know I care about them – I ask them about their life, their recent trip, their ailing mother, or how their dissertation is going. It is my way of saying, “I remember that you went on vacation, and I’m interested in hearing about it because you’re important to me.”

A friend and I were having lunch the other day and she pointed out that we give others what we want them to give us. She brought it up in relation to her romantic relationship, but it really applies in any situation, and it is so true, isn’t it? The problem can occur when we fail to communicate what we really need, and assume the other person will just KNOW. Men complain about this all the time in regard to women. They want us to tell them what we want, but we too often expect them to divine it on their own – and some women go so far as to believe that if they really loved us, they would figure it out. Sometimes, even we don’t know what we want – we just know it’s something other than what we’re getting.

Given that, it’s important for us to ask ourselves the big questions as well. Two of the biggest are: Who are you, and what do you want? Some others: What makes you happy? What do you value? What can you not live without? Where are you going? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you believe? The list is endless. Pick up a journal or sit down to meditate and start figuring out the answers. There is an old joke about Unitarian Universalists – the liberal faith tradition that I ascribe to – that we question the answers. Many turn to religion to answer their questions, and give them a theology to cling to. We, on the other hand, tend to stir up questions and encourage people to find their own path. That is probably why it appeals to me so much.

Whatever your questions, I hope you are able to answer them, and more importantly, I hope you have people in your life to ask!

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