I can’t tell you how many times I have had to answer this question. And it’s a lot harder than you’d think to answer it honestly.
It’s been one year since my breast cancer diagnosis & subsequent surgery. 8 months since I finished radiation treatments. 6 months since my total hysterectomy and starting on hormone inhibitors. People I see now ask about what I have been through, and then, I wince internally because I know it’s coming, they say, “But you’re fine now, right?”
Because “fine” is not really the word for it.
No one told me when I was diagnosed that it was unlikely I’d ever think of myself as “fine” again. But in this kind of a conversation, it’s hard to explain that to anyone. Most equate “done with active treatment” to “all clear” and that’s just not accurate. Most doctors don’t even tell you you’re “cancer free” these days, because it’s widely known they can’t say that with any real certainty.
I used to hear someone was a “cancer survivor” and think “Yay! Good for them!” But now? I now know there’s a silent for the time being at the end.
When you beat cancer, you can only consider it beaten for now.
So when I say “Yes, I’m fine,” the best way I can explain what I really mean is to ask you to imagine that I am walking alone down a frozen river. The ice beneath my feet is thick, and if I don’t think about it, I can pretend it’s solid ground. I know the water is under there, and if I concentrate, I can hear it rushing along, dark and potentially deadly, but mostly it’s in the background. I try not to focus on it, I try to forget it, I try to enjoy the pretty landscape of my life around me, I focus on the distant shore of the future and just keep walking.
But sometimes, I hear a cracking sound. I see something that wasn’t there a second ago. I feel something I shouldn’t feel. I immediately realize that the ground beneath me is, in fact, ice, and that the water beneath it can, in fact, kill me. Any pain or abnormality in my body makes that ice feel thin, fragile and treacherous.
For instance, last week I discovered that the ribs on my left (treated) side were incredibly painful to touch. Bone pain is a common side effect of Arimidex, I have some, but that’s more of an ache, like arthritic type pain in my fingers and ankles. Not feeling like someone has been whacking on my ribs with a broomstick as if I were a piñata.
So I’m poking at these tender, bruised feeling spots, trying to tell myself the ice is fine, that’s not a cracking noise, it’s not crumbling away under my feet, it’s just normal settling, there’s some logical reason for it.
Then I hear on Sunday that my friend from high school, also a mother of two young children, who is the same age as me and who started her breast cancer journey one year earlier than I did, who started out with a diagnosis fairly similar to mine, has died after 10 months of fighting metastatic growths in her lungs and bones.
And, with that, I begin to feel like my feet are punching through the flimsy crust of melting, cracking ice. I can hear and see and feel the cold, black, churning water ready to suck me in, and I’m looking at the distant shore of my future with my children and my husband standing on it, and feeling absolute clawing terror that I am not going to make it over there.
This triggers several days of random panic attacks and crying jags, rounds of doctor visits and scheduled diagnostic tests. While going through the motions of being “fine”.
Followed by some waiting and lots of worrying.
Followed by hopefully good news.
After which I will carefully start walking across that ice again, but with one ear cocked, listening and feeling for any signs of danger.
And that is what my new version of “fine” looks like.