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How are you?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.

How are you? The simple and innocuous question which is asked and answered throughout the day and many situations. However this question took on a whole new meaning after having cancer.

Before cancer ‘How are you?’ was a nice starter and opener for an interaction with someone whether at the dentist or meeting up with friends. It meant nothing really because I knew that deeper and more interesting conversations and topics would follow. I might reply by saying I was fine, OK or good, have a moan about latest teenager drama, talk about weekend plans, the weather, a newspaper article or TV show.

During cancer treatment ‘How are you?’ was still answered initially by saying I was fine or OK (good didn’t feature at this point) and then go onto give a quick and brief update about the treatment and change the subject ideally getting it back onto them and as far away from cancer as possible.

After cancer when ‘How are you?’ was asked I would still reply that I was fine, OK or good and be keen to move to more interesting avenues of conversation as quickly as possible. For some people this would not be enough of an answer and they would want to know more. Their faces would take a few seconds to process how they could ask about my cancer without actually mentioning the word cancer. That moment was enjoyable because I could almost hear the synapses formulating the question behind their thoughtful facial expressions and also frustrating because I knew what was coming next. Asking directly about my cancer would be a step to far so next would come ‘Are you well?’ I’d then reply ‘I am well’ hoping this was game over checkmate move situation. But no, they still haven’t got what they want and I’m then asked ‘Have you still got the all clear?’ Each question is asked more tentatively than the previous as they know they are stepping on increasingly dodgy territory. I’m mean, I don’t give way, I hold my boundary and reply ‘I feel heathy today’. The silence between us becomes longer and more awkward, I’m in no hurry to break it and ease their discomfort, they started this, maybe they'll learn and not go there next time. Eventually the conversation staggers on albeit a little strained.

I swallow down my anger each time this happens but my frustration deepens just a little at how cancer patients are treated. I somehow doubt these questions would be asked to someone who hadn’t had cancer? The first answer would be accepted. Cancer is not a well-known relative I enjoy spending time with or reminiscing about; it is a sneaky bastard who may be currently sharing my body with me preparing to take me out.

The ‘How are you?’ question is a polite social interaction used to begin a conversation and not a route to dig up, about or in my current cancer status. I’m ever hopeful that one day my response is accepted without further digging. I wonder how the asker would feel if they were being pushed to answer questions when they felt worried, scared or just wanted to crack on with their day?

How do you experience these type of questions? What is your reaction to them?



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