I don’t quite know how to start this column so I’ll begin with its ending: “I’m fine.”
I am asked as much, if not more, than the next person how I am doing. It’s a standard courtesy offered up every day between many unsuspecting askers and most often provides answerers an opportunity to nonchalantly move the conversation along without too many fits and starts. For a cancer patient like myself, however, whose status, situation and story is likely known in advance (generally speaking) of most casual meetings that occur, the question/greeting, though well-intended, doesn’t exactly fall on deaf ears, and certainly does not conjure nonchalance; at least not in my head, and that’s where this problem really starts.
Of course, I want people interested in my health. Of course, I want people to be courteous and respectful to me. Of course, I want people to engage me and treat me like the non-terminal patient I’m not. I aspire to be normal so I want to be treated normally, and normally, being treated as such wouldn’t bother me. And it doesn’t bother me, really. What it does do however, is jump-start/remind my brain of my less-than-ideal health circumstances: stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Hardly the cross I wanted to bear beginning at age 54 and a half – after a life of not smoking, with no immediate-family history of cancer.
And given the fact that I semi pay attention to my surroundings and take notice of what I see and hear, when asked a question of health-related substance – sincerely, I am loathe to answer the question “monosyllabically.” If I do control my responses and don’t burden the questioner with a brief but humorous accounting of my most recent cancer-related anecdote, in my head I will have already gone there and done that: meaning, just because I don’t say anything, don’t presume for a second that my brain hasn’t already considered how in fact I am doing and reviewed all the gory details. So whether anybody intended it – and I’m not sure anybody did, when I’m asked this most innocent of questions, my reaction is anything but. My reaction is a non-verbal, instantaneous re-living of the past four years, beginning with my visit to the Emergency Room on January 1, 2009. And as much as I think about my circumstances – on my own, what few breaks I allow myself are invariably cut short when someone, anyone has the good nature to inquire how I’m doing.
Still, being ignored is no good. Being treated with kid gloves is no good. Being cautious is no good. Being super-sensitive is no good. Being over-reactive is no good. Being pitied is no good. Being alone is no good. Moreover, being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer is absolutely no good. As much as I want to live long and prosper and consider all the hope the future has to offer, cancer controls from within, often subconsciously. That’s what I hate the most; the changes it causes in your head: your reactions, your assessments, your sense of proportion, your sense of self, etc. It’s all different. I can live with it, but it does cause me to sometimes make mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains; with very little consideration of the mole.