A Question Which Begs What Answer

Twice recently, in print, I have been asked the same question. Once on an evaluation of a previous doctor appointment, and within the last week, on a pre-registration form for an oral surgeon. The question: “How is your health?” “Excellent.” “Good.” Fair.” “Poor.” The two times I saw this question, I snickered. I mean, I have cancer: Stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer in fact, the terminal kind. And even though I’ve lived way beyond my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis, (eight and a half years and counting, always counting), I’m still undergoing treatment. I see my oncologist every three months. I’m not in remission. My tumors, so far as I’ve  been told, are not necrotic (dead). I’m still scheduling CT Scans, brain MRIs and PET Scans quarterly, semi-annually and yearly, respectively. And while amazingly thrilled to be still alive, my fate turns on the results of any one of these diagnostic scans so I wonder aloud: how is my health?

In the two most recent opportunities (I’ve had others) to answer this question, I have erred on the side of reality (my reality) and answered “Poor.” Whether I’m up and about or down and out, cancer is sort of the definition of ‘poor,’ isn’t it? Let’s be honest: who wants to receive a  diagnosis of cancer, regardless of type and/or stage. Moreover, it’s hardly the gift that keeps on giving. Quite the opposite. It’s like the houseguest who never leaves. It’s always there and the more it’s around, the worse it’s likely to get.

As much as one tries, a cancer diagnosis is hard to forget. Whether you’re still undergoing treatment as I am, or have been told you’re cancer-free/in remission/N.E.D. (no evidence of disease), the prospect of a life unaltered by the experience is unrealistic, especially so when questions are asked pertaining to your health. It’s not as if you become stigmatized by your cancer diagnosis and/or medical history, but you do become a lifetime member of a club you’d rather not have joined (the more serious and exact opposite of a feeling expressed by Groucho Marx when he so famously joked that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member). If only it were that simple – and funny.

A straight forward question about one’s health which requires a thoughtful and honest answer. Yet, an answer which somehow must, in my opinion, educate the asker. I’m not a normal respondent (no comments from the peanut gallery). I’m a cancer patient/survivor. Presumably, my immune system is somewhat compromised. What’s good for the goose is probably not good for this gander. My life expectancy is all fouled up. Cancer is likely in control. As much as I want to delude myself otherwise, the writing, if not necessarily on the walls, is certainly in multiple books and journals. And not that there aren’t exceptions to every rule (my survival is proof of that), generally speaking, a cancer diagnosis “spells trouble with a capital ‘T,'” if I may invoke the late actor, Robert Preston, from his career-defining role as Harold Hill in the 1962 movie, “The Music Man.” Still, life is going on, and not too badly, I may add. But on any given day … .

I suppose the solution then is an asterisk. But how does one add an asterisk to a standardized form. And given the evolving nature of our almost-entirely inhumane (non-human) electronic contact, where does one go/what does one say, to separate and be heard. I want to be treated equally, but as a cancer patient, I’m not. I’m different. If there’s a box for that, I’ll gladly check it. I want the best outcome, naturally. But not giving me the opportunity to properly define myself/my circumstances doesn’t help either one of us. And does even less for the next respondent.


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