“Are you okay? Is the cancer gone?”

Maxine Noel
‘The Conversation’ by Maxine Noel (Ioyan Mani) – needlepoint

Someone asked me last week, “How are you doing?”

It’s hard work answering that question.
I know it’s hard work asking the question too.
I ask myself: What is she asking? Is she asking if I am okay, or if the Disease is still active?
Which symptoms is she talking about? Emotional or physical? Or is her question about imaging and tests? Because if the Disease is inactive, this does not mean I am okay. It just means the conversation is easier, and we can move on to the next topic.
Is she asking because she wants to know? Or does she want me to end the conversation quickly and painlessly?
“I mean -” I begin haltingly. It’s like preparing a discourse, and each one is individualized.
She helps by adding: “Is it gone? Please say it’s gone. I want it to be gone.”
[Ah. Now I know what to say. She’s asking if she needs to prepare for me to lose hair, get surgery, do the Big Things of Disease, – OR if I am suffering but not leaning precariously over into mortality.]
“OH. Yeah. I’m clear.” But am I? There is no magic silver bullet imaging, no Cancer-Pregnancy Test that you can pee on and see POSITIVE or NEGATIVE for Any-Cancer-In-Your-Body.
But is this a moment where I can explain the science of cancer? Does she want to know?
Sometimes I skip the explanation. But when I’m talking to someone who I know cares 39102deeply, I explain the ambiguity of how cancer hides. It’s not a matter of a Strep test; you just have to monitor for symptoms.
And you don’t catch symptoms sometimes. In time.
And then they ask, “But you don’t have symptoms, right?” And sometimes you hear the hopefulness in the voice, which is in part a hopefulness that says, “Oh please be okay, please don’t be sick.” In part it’s a hopefulness that says, “Please say you are okay, because I don’t know how to have this conversation, and I just want THIS thing to be over. This cancer, yes, but more importantly, this conversation. It hurts so bad because it could be anything. It could be normalcy, and it could be death.”
I get it. Disease and mortality are not easy conversations to have. I am no expert myself.
So when I reflect on these difficult conversations in this blog, I’m not contemptuous. God, no.
I’m not resentful either. I’m just reflecting.
I’m thinking:
You know how HARD this conversation, this exchange is between you and me? It’s even harder WITHIN me, between me and me.
Am I okay? Is it gone?
No. Not for a long time. And I don’t know.

 

The Sick Child 1907 by Edvard Munch 1863-1944
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child