Monday, January 12, 2015

How Are You? A Simply Complicated Question


Answering the question, “How are you doing?” should be a simple exercise.

"Fine." 
"Great!" 
"Amazing!"

Yet my answer ultimately depends on who is asking the question and how they’re asking the question.

A casual “How are you?” by someone who has not been intimately involved in the health drama of the past eighteen months, receives an unrestrained and unapologetic, “I’m fantastic.” Because, when I get right down to it, I am feeling relatively fantastic:

  • I am cancer free and I have resumed most of the activities that were put on hold or restricted while I recovered from a multitude of surgeries.
  • I am relatively breast symmetrical in clothing and, despite the scars, no longer feel as if I’m walking around sans body parts.
  • I no longer assume every ache and/or pain is a recurrence of the cancer that caused an upheaval of my life in the first place.
  • I resigned from my comfortable corporate job, parlayed my professional skills and personal passion toward transforming the healthcare experience and began empowering patients and caregivers through collaborative education and engagement.   

Did I mention I was CANCER FREE?!?

So, when I say, “FANTASTIC” I really, really mean it.

But when a dear friend and I catch up for hours and I am then asked the infamous, “How are you?” question, I pause. They really want to know.
And when a fellow cancer survivor asks the“How are you?” question, I pause again. They really want to know AND [insert my best Jack Nicholson impression here] they can handle the truth.

So how am I?

On a physical level, I am doing well.
Very well according to my surgeons and physicians but I am still plagued by pain and lack of muscular ability that can only be rectified by another surgery – one that I am absolutely not willing to schedule right now. I am allergic to Tamoxifen (the anti-hormonal drug that is supposed to keep cancer from returning) but the allergic reaction is preferable to cancer recurrence and any alternative treatments, so I take antihistamines regularly to stop erratic hives and swelling.

On an emotional level, I am doing well.
Very well according to anyone who hasn’t had cancer. I’ve returned to all the regular activities of a normal life. From the outside I resemble a no-name-taking, cancer-ass-kicking breast cancer survivor and thriver. But on the inside, I’m just me and there are a multitude of convoluted layers to the comfort and security I portray.

In other words, it’s complicated.

Artwork courtesy of my daughter

While I no longer assume EVERY ache and/or pain is a recurrence of the cancer that caused an upheaval of my life in the first place – the thought still crosses my mind more than 50% of the time.
While I’ve gotten the majority of anti-hormonal treatment side effects under control, I struggle wildly with others.

While I’m comfortable with my decision to undergo breast reconstruction, the realities have been startlingly different than the one-and-done type surgery I expected:  I rub on temporary nipple tattoos every few days and continue to try and regain the ability to do a full push-up.

While I no longer fear the abstract concept of death. I am still absolutely terrified every time I start doing the 5-year, 10-year survival rate math.

It’s complicated.

Perhaps a better answer to the “How are you?” question is: Grateful.

I am extremely grateful. For my husband. For my children. For my family and friends. For a wonderfully supportive and energizing community. For successful treatment. For the amazing people I’ve met along this journey. For opportunities to give back and opportunities to support others.

I am grateful for my life and all that it contains - including the complexity.