Friday, November 30, 2012

The Importance of Tone

Before I begin, I'd like to direct your attention to today's XKCD cartoon.  I think the reason why will be apparent. 

So the other day I was in the cafeteria at work, making myself a cup of coffee (as is my wont), and a co-worker came in.  She'd been with the company and known me since before my surgery, though she works part-time so she perhaps didn't know me as well as some others, even though we work about ten feet from one another.  She started making the usual morning small talk, how are you, how was your weekend, et cetera.  I responded that not a whole lot was going on, went for an MRI, just the usual.  I know that for most people an MRI is kind of a huge deal but I figured everyone at work knows what's up with me, they know I get routine MRIs as part of my treatment.  It seems strange, coming from a man who writes under an alias, but I am rather open about my cancer with my friends and co-workers.  Not open enough, it would seem.

My co-worker looked to me with concern and asked, "oh?  What's wrong?  Are you OK?"  

Now, I don't expect that everyone's memorized each and every step of my treatment.  When I went off chemo, many people were surprised to hear I was still on it.  Certainly it doesn't affect their lives in any way, that I get routine MRIs.  I assumed she must have simply not known.  As casually as telling her which hand I favor, I said, "I have brain cancer.  I get regular MRIs to keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn't pull anything sneaky."

"I had no idea!," she replied, just as casually.  We chatted a bit about that, how I had no idea she had no idea, or that anyone had no idea, wondering who else was in the dark, and then we went our separate ways.  It was as though brain cancer is only serious if one speaks of it in a fittingly serious tone. 

I can't say I'm disappointed.  Those, "I have cancer" talks are really hard and unpleasant.  Definitely not the way to start a morning.  It was just so surreal to see it go over so smoothly.  It's made me think about the importance of tone, and how we communicate.  I wonder if she would have been more concerned had I mumbled, "we're out of creamer" in as miserable, hopeless a voice as I could muster.

Or maybe she thought I was making a really tasteless joke but didn't want to call me on it. 

Either way, I am left wondering who else doesn't know.  There isn't much I can do to raise awareness, if I even wished to do so.  I can't send a company-wide e-mail saying, "hey guys, just a reminder, man with cancer over here!"  I can't go around inserting it into casual conversation, hoping that everyone will react as well as that one co-worker.  I don't really want people thinking about it.  I am not my cancer.  It does not define me and it does not limit me.

I guess I just don't want to have that hard conversation with anyone.  I don't want to put them through it, and I don't want to put myself through it.  But above all else, I don't want to surprise anyone with it.  I don't want to get someone invested in me, only to feel I've presented myself falsely.  My cancer is not who I am, but it is part of who I am. 

Anyway, yes, I did have an MRI this month and it came back with no progression.  No one has said the word "remission" to me, but from what I understand I meet all the criteria.  I suppose I'm afraid to ask, should I be confronted with some technicality that means I'm not really in remission.  I did get a call from my oncologist in Manhattan concurring with my local doctor's opinion that we should stop the chemo, so that, my friends, is a done deal. 

Thanksgiving has come and gone - for those who may be unfamiliar with the custom, it's an annual feast where we Americans give thanks for all we have by stuffing ourselves stupid with rich, heavy foods - and my mom's been pretty enthusiastic about all the things we (by which she means I) have to be thankful for.  I'm not sure how to feel about it, really.  Things could be much, much worse, to be sure.  I'm not going to be as dark as to say I'm still trying to fight my way back to zero after a setback as huge as cancer, as I believe my disease has helped me to grow as a person.  Right now I'm as close to cancer-free as I can expect to ever be, given the level of technology I have available to me, but that's all I am: close.  I'm not cured.  So long as that's the case, so long as I'd trade anything for a cure, it's hard for me to feel all that thankful.  It's hard for me to give thanks that a bad situation didn't get worse, no matter how glad I am that that's the case. 

Maybe that appreciation that things haven't totally gone to hell is close enough.  I mean, dad's turkey was pretty good this year.  That's something.  Right?