“How are you?”
You can mean a lot of different things depending on how you say it.
If you slur it together, “Howyadoin'?” it's more of a greeting than a question to be answered.
If you emphasize the “how,” you can mean, “Hello. I care enough about you to say more than ‘Hi,' but please don’t get into any more detail than ‘Fine.'”
Put the emphasis on the “you,” – and I know you’re saying it out loud to yourself right now – and you can mean, “Share with me your current mood and any important factors shaping it.”
But if someone says it like this: “How ARE you doing?” it means you have a serious, obvious problem – like an open wound, a compound fracture or, in my case, cancer. It usually happens like this.
“Hey, Dave. How are you?”
“No, Dave. How ARE you?”
“No, really, how AAAARRRRREEEEE you?”
"Oh, you really want an answer."
So here’s how I am:
A little more than a year ago I was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancer. It’s rare, generally fatal and tucked away between my liver and pancreas in an inoperable spot. I wrote about it a couple times last year.
The prognosis one year, 15 radiation treatments, 19 chemotherapy sessions, eight trips to the Mayo Clinic and seven bile duct stent replacements ago wasn’t so hot. Without going into great detail, let's just say credit cards I have in my wallet right now were likely to expire after I do.
But here I am feeling fine, with my hair and waist growing out at the rate any 50-year-old might expect.
My tumor has remained stable, so I’m on a bit of a break from all the chemo until January when I go back to Mayo for more scans, a new stent and a new plan.
So many folks refer to it as a battle with cancer. And 13 years ago when I had Stage 4 colon cancer and newborn twins, it felt like a battle, indeed. I had kids to raise and a wife to help. It felt like lives – not just my own – were hanging in the balance.
Now I’m older, wiser, less scared and know that this tumor and I will be – barring a medical breakthrough – sharing my abdomen for the rest of my life, however long it is. So for now, there’s no talk of a battle. My cancer and I have negotiated an uneasy peace, both surviving as long as we behave reasonably. After all, if it kills me, I’ll become a much less hospitable host.
I don’t look sick. I don’t feel sick. And, some days, I even forget that I am sick.
But I never forget how well I am. I have a wonderful, funny family. At the same time I’ve been dealing with cancer, my 16-year-old daughter has been in and out of the hospital with serious asthma and complications, including a tracheotomy. Her favorite discovery is that with the right set-up, the air she inhales bypasses her nose, so she can’t smell our home, which is filled with teenage brothers. And my wife has kept us all alive during this year of health-related excitement with grace and a good dose of humor.
We’ve seen good fortune and met good people. This season is a perfect time to reflect on everything that’s right in life. And there’s still a lot even when you have cancer. You just need to know where to look. Good meals. Good music. People who can make you laugh. Ice cream in nearly any flavor.
One place to look is my family’s tablecloth. For 20 years, each person who sits at our Thanksgiving Day table finds a Sharpie with his or her knife, fork and spoon. The Sharpie is to write on the tablecloth what one is thankful for each year. After 20 years, the tablecloth is just about full of things silly and serious -- 7-year-olds grateful for Pokemon, 15-year-olds (boys) grateful for girls, 35--year-old grateful for elastic pants.
Perhaps this is the year we unwrap the one we've had at the ready the last couple of years. Despite the challenges, my family has a whole lot of material to start filling up a new one.