How are you?

“How are you?”

It’s practically a greeting in our day to day life. “Hey so-and-so, how are you?” It’s said in passing. It’s said casually. It’s said all the time. 

It’s nice. It’s well-meaning. It’s mostly very genuine. 

It’s impossible {for me} to answer. 

This is my short answer: “I’m good! Thanks!”
Is it a lie? Nope. 

I work a job that I love and is so fulfilling. I have a husband who supports, encourages and uplifts me in every way. He also makes a damn good co-worker 😉. I have two kids who are so full of life and joy it’s almost too much to handle. They are growing and healthy and intelligent and hilarious. I have a community of friends around me (near and far) that make me laugh, support me and remind me that I’m not alone. And I have a God who is steady and faithful and gives me incredible hope for each new day. 
There is a lot of good! So no, I’m not lying. 

The struggle for me is that “good” does not feel like a fully authentic answer

Because although there is much to be thankful for and so much good and beauty, I walk constantly under the cloud of cancer and it’s bag of worries, side effects and fears.  

As far as I know, there is still active cancer in my body. My last scan – in August 2018 – showed that my lesions were about 50% reduced in size and intensity. That was great news! But since then it has been a keep-on-keeping on kind of attitude. 

In November last year I began reacting poorly to my immunotherapy. The downside of immunotherapy is that your immune system sometimes gets so crazy that it attacks your own body. After more than a month of lots of tests to rule out anything else, it was confirmed that I had developed immunotherapy related colitis. That’s all I’ll say about that. If you don’t know what colitis is, google it {or don’t}. I’ll spare you the details. I will say however that we have considered buying stock in toilet paper. 

It has been a scary season. Having to consider the possibility of stopping immunotherapy if the side effects didn’t begin to resolve was terrifying. Let me remind you that the options for treatment if immunotherapy fails is experimental or none. 
On top of the side effects I started experiencing, January/February are not my favorite months to begin with. For the last two years they have brought with them one relapse and then another. 

Every check-up I’ve had with my oncologist so far this year has brought with it anxiety as well. They are check-ups to look for symptoms that my disease might be progressing – weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, fatigue, pain, night sweats. The problem is, I have relapsed twice and both times have caught me completely off guard. My symptoms – if any – were so vague, I didn’t notice them. So I walk out of the doctors office each time with flying colors – decent weight, no pain, no night sweats, normal amount of houseparent/mom fatigue – and each time hope that they are right. That the immunotherapy is working. That my diet has helped. That exercising is keeping me healthy. That my supplements are helping to suppress my disease also. But each time there is a shadow of fear, because until a PET scan shows for sure that there is no active cancer in my body, no one can really say for sure how I am. 

And this brings us back to the question at hand. “How are you?”

Every time that question is thrown my direction I struggle with how to answer. How vulnerable to be. How deep to go. How much to share. Should I answer just about today? In this moment? Or do I start talking about the fear that still grips my heart when I sit waiting for the doctor? Should I go into detail about the side effects I am experiencing and how that affects my daily life? Do I tell them about my recent visit to the cancer floor at the hospital that was so traumatic it left me shaking and in tears? 

This is my internal monologue. Every. Single. Time. 

“I’m good, thanks!”

And just about every time, this is my response.

Now, please don’t come to this point and think you need to stop asking. I know the heart, compassion and concern behind the question and I am so thankful for it. Just know my struggle in answering.

Life is not black and white. There have been very few days in the last 4 years when things were fully awesome or totally terrible. Life is a beautiful, messy, struggle for each and every person who lives it. Yet, somehow, we ask this question of one another – “how are you?” – and expect a one word answer.

My hope is that we would know the people in community with us well enough to ask them more real and specific questions – “How’s your mom?” “How’s your cat?””How many miles have you run this month?” “How is your health?” “How can I pray for you?” “What’s been the greatest joy for this week?” – and that we would know when to give space and just say “Hey, it’s really good to see you!”

If you have made it this far and are still reading, first of all, take a lap around the living room, you have been sitting for too long. Second of all, you are probably never going to ask me again how I am because you have heard my inner monologue and you don’t want to be trapped for 15 minutes talking about toilet paper and how many times I have cried this week!

But seriously, keep asking. Just be specific. Do you want to know how I am today? Or do you want to know about cancer? Do you want to hear the latest on my kids or work or vacation plans? Then ask those things.

And if you don’t want to know any specifics, then “how are you” is just fine.

2 thoughts on “How are you?

  1. Ashley,
    The courage that goes with you and translates in your writing is incredible. I know it is a fine line between wanting to know how you are and at the same time not wanting to stir up negative thoughts that you are trying so hard not to get you down. It is a struggle for all of us, because the feeling of helplessness is very upsetting (as you have learned better than us!). Please know that no matter what or how we are asking it, you and Joe along with the kids are constantly in our prayers.
    Uncle Ken


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