“How are you?” Such a simple question that we throw around a room every single day. We pass a colleague in the hall, and ask “How are you?”

By: Robin Harry

“How are you?” Such a simple question that we throw around a room every single day. We pass a colleague in the hall, and ask “How are you?” We see an acquaintance on the street, or someone we haven’t seen in a long time, and the question is always the same. Sometimes that’s how we greet each other daily. Well, I don’t know about other cancer patients, but that’s a question that I’ve really come to dislike these days.

The problem with that question is that it asks everything and nothing all at the same time. It’s not specific enough to really ask what any real problem is, but it’s still loaded with a modifying clause. The question, really, is “How are you, what’s cancer like these days?” The kicker with that is that it’s painfully obvious to me that most times (not always, but most), people aren’t really ready for an honest answer to that question.

On any given day since I’ve had cancer, I’ve probably been asked “how are you” an average of four to five times. Face to face, email, text message, phone calls. And there are variations. There’s the “how arrrrrre you?!”, heavy emphasis on the “are”, a heavy attempt to convey empathy or sincerity. Then there’s the “how are you” with the head tilt…ugh, that one is special. There’s the question that’s obviously out of curiosity and not concern (what’s this cancer thing like anyway?). There are the ones that ask with the expectation that I’m half dead and you can almost hear the disappointment in their voice when I say I’m doing okay, like I’m not opening up enough to them. The ones that call just to hear me say I’m okay so that THEY feel better, it’s not about me at all. Oh – and my favourite – the question followed by some ridiculous term of endearment. “How are you, sweetheart/darling etc.” So I have a tumour in the chest and suddenly my name isn’t enough of an identifier. And they wonder why I don’t answer.

Now this isn’t global – some people do get it right, and I appreciate that so much. In any case, I know everyone means well, so I’m gracious anyway. But sometimes, the question, when asked badly, is just a reminder that I’m sick. Also, if someone isn’t ready for an honest answer, they shouldn’t ask the question – because then that forces me to hand-hold and throw out some platitude like “I’m doing well, good days and bad days.” Sometimes, when people just ask that, I really want to hit them with the truth.

How arrrrre you, Robin, sweetie? <head tilt>
“Well, I’m always exhausted but can’t sleep, I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in two months, my eyeballs and ears feel like they’re going to spontaneously combust every 15 minutes, I’m always hungry but my stomach hates everything I give it, I haven’t really tasted good food since July, I can barely feel the tips of my index fingers, my head is bloody cold, my body is sore, I’m tired of being sick…etc.”

I guess my point is this: I don’t mind being asked how I’m doing at all. But for one – it helps when people are specific. Ask how chemo went, or what the side-effects are, or even just how I’m feeling at that moment that you’re asking me. Two – people’s reasons for asking are important. Three – don’t ask with expectations of anything but honesty.

Some other thoughts:

Losing My Hair

How Friends Manage

A Survivor’s Story

Look Good, Feel Better

My Visit to a Support Group


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