Though I immerse you regular readers in the excruciating details of my cancer-affected life, rarely do I bombard unsuspecting conversationalists who unknowingly yet sincerely wander into territory with which many of you are intimately detailed. Not that I don't have stories to tell, and/or perhaps even unsolicited advice to offer; generally speaking, if I can avoid it, I don't want to drag the conversation into a cancer-centric black hole.
It's not because I'm uncomfortable talking about cancer, or that I would feel it an inappropriate invasion of my privacy, or that I would feel the need to blather on non-stop. Hardly. But I would see it as the end of an innocent inquiry undone that then takes on a more empathetic, sympathetic and possibly even pathetic tone, some of which might make me uncomfortable. The reason being: part of what feeds my self-preservation and sense of well-being is reading and reacting to the feedback I receive from others when the subject matter turns to cancer, however well-meaning their intentions may have been.
Sometimes the reactions I get aren't helpful ("tell me Ken, how's it feel to know you're going to die?"). Sometimes, I find myself rationalizing, explaining and re-visiting issues and experiences more helpful and of interest to the party who asked the question rather than to yours truly who's now having to answer the question. Not that I don't want to be helpful or have difficulty empathizing; nothing could be further from the truth. It's more that I don't want to see their expressions/hear their apologies when their innocent question ("So what do you do?") elicits an extremely unexpected answer: "Not too much. I have stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer." Then I have to decide how I involved I want to get them in my life. Since I'd just as soon not get them involved for all the reasons I've outlined, usually I deflect their questions and/or redirect them away from me and back to them. I don't exactly shut them down. It's more like a gentle closing. I'm not rude or the least bit off-putting. I'm more like a traffic cop re-routing emotions to avoid any accidents - for all parties engaged.
My experience has been that responding to an innocent question with a "I have terminal-cancer"-type bombshell tends to take the conversation in an entirely different direction than likely intended. The seriousness of my response/situation and the emotions - maybe even memories it stirs in the person who asked the question - can hijack an evening and cause, at least for a few minutes anyway, a rather dreary dynamic. All of which I don't want to happen and more so, don't need to happen. As a cancer patient, I don't need dreary. I don't need pity. I don't need negativity. I need humor. I need encouragement and compliments. I need to be made to feel, as Tony the Tiger might say: "Not just good, but GREAT!"
When I assess my nine-plus years post-diagnosis, having lived now years beyond my original "13-month to two-year" prognosis, I can't quite attribute my amazing good fortune to anything in particular. However, I will admit to this: trying not think about my diagnosis/prognosis too much, trying to remain positive, trying to be funny and self-effacing, and trying to avoid people and situations where I might feel bad, are all components. Are they working to keep me alive more than the medicine, my pills and my miscellaneous non-Western alternatives are?
Yet another question or two I'd rather not answer.
"This column is my life as one of the fortunate few, a lung cancer anomaly: a stage IV lung cancer patient who has outlived his doctor’s original prognosis; and I’m glad to share it. It seems to help me cope writing about it. Perhaps it will help you relate reading about it."