“How's Susan Doing?”

Ever since Susan’s cancer came back a little over a year ago (was it really that recently? Seems like we’ve been living with it much, much longer.), the simplest question in the world has threatened to trip me up: “How’re you doing?”

I remember, in particular, one event. It was right after we had got the bad news: the cancer was back and it was in her bones, her lungs, her spine. Everywhere. I couldn’t even process it. But I was coping in the way I cope: running errands, getting things done, making lists and checking them off. So I was at the grocery store, picking up prescriptions and groceries. The woman at the checkout counter asked, as she always does, “How’re you doing?”

And I very nearly told her.

I sometimes think about where the conversation would have gone from there.

Of course, it’s not always so obvious that “How’re you doing?” simply means “Hi.” There are people who know about what’s going on, and I figure that sometimes — but certainly not always — they really want to know how I’m doing when they ask.

So, since the honest answer to how I’m doing is no longer ever “fine,” I’ve instituted an “OK to lie” rule. No matter how things are actually going, my first response to this question is now always, “Good. And yourself?” Because people who are really just saying “Hi” don’t need to hear the jumble of exhaustion and terror I’d have to give them if I answered honestly. And frankly, I don’t have the energy to answer that question honestly more than once or twice per day anyway.

If people really want to know how I’m doing, I leave it up to them to ask, “No, seriously. How are you doing?”

And How’s Your Wife?
When people ask how I’m doing, there’s at least a decent chance they’re just greeting me, or are expressing interest in seeing me run a self-diagnostic. When they ask how Susan’s doing, though, I honestly don’t know how to answer.

I know everybody is asking because they really care about her. But I don’t know for sure whether:

  • They want to know how she’s doing today
  • They want to know whether she’s improving since she started radiation
  • They want to be reassured
  • They want to know the long-term prognosis
  • They don’t know anything about what we’ve found in the past three weeks and are just calling to chat. You’d be surprised at how many “real-life” friends and neighbors don’t have any idea that I have this blog (or, having heard that I have a blog, have never checked it out).

So, if I don’t know the depth of answer someone’s looking for, I’ve got a lie prepared for them, too: “She’s hanging in there.” Again, it’s up to them to ask for details.

OK, Seriously. How’s Your Wife?
But you, of course, know what’s going on. And you’ve somehow managed to plod through what I originally intended to be a short two-paragraph introduction into the actual substance of today’s entry. Which is: how Susan is really doing right now.

First off, the radiation and steroid combination is helping. A lot. To understand how much, I need to give you a little more detail into how bad Susan had gotten before she started the radiation.

  • She had completely lost the ability to sleep. She would toss and turn and shake and sit up and rock in bed. The whole night. Several nights in a row.
  • She couldn’t sit still. Whatever wouldn’t let Susan sleep also wouldn’t let her even rest. And remember, she’s still recovering from a hip replacement last November, so being compelled to keep moving around was painful.
  • She had lost most of her dexterity. She couldn’t tie a knot. She couldn’t fasten her seatbelt.
  • She had lost her sense of space. I had to help her into bed, into the car, onto the toilet, and onto chairs, because turning around to sit down on something had stopped making sense to her.
  • She had lost her ability to hold the thread of a conversation. She was still herself, but she couldn’t track long conversations, and if multiple people were in a room talking — it didn’t even need to be talking to her — she couldn’t track it at all.
  • She was lost. A moment I will never forget is when I was sitting at the kitchen table and Susan caught my eye. She looked scared. I went up to her and she said to me, embarrassed, “Can you help me find the bathroom?”

We’re three weeks into five weeks of radiation therapy now, and none of the above problems exist anymore. Susan’s sleeping right now, she sat and enjoyed a movie with the family earlier tonight, and she’s able to handle normal tasks again — she doesn’t have her gifted-level of dexterity back (yet), but she’s able to do everything I can.

I have no illusions about this being anything more than a reprieve, but my family and I (and many friends, family members, and readers) pray for a miracle. Remission’s unlikely, but it’s not unheard of, after all.

Acceptable Tradeoffs
Like every cancer-fighting treatment that I know of, the radiation comes with serious side effects.

The one that bothers Susan most right now is a scalded feel on the inside of her mouth and throat. You know how your tongue and the roof of your mouth feel when you drink something too hot? That’s how Susan’s whole mouth and throat feel, all the time.

The only kind of food she really enjoys is cold stuff. Milkshakes, smoothies (but not acidic ones), ice cream. Crunchy stuff (like Cap’n Crunch or Fritos) are horrible. I think the moment Susan looks forward to most each day is that on the way home from Radiation, she always gets whoever is driving her to stop and get an orange creamsicle smoothie at the Sonic Drivethrough. Nothing in the world tastes better right now.

Also, exactly as predicted, Susan’s hair started falling out as we began the third week of radiation. By now, though, we’re old hands at this. As soon as she noticed strands of hair on her shoulders, Susan told me it was time to shave her head.

I shaved it expertly and unsentimentally. Expertly, because I use the same electric razor to shave my own head three times per week now. Unsentimentally, because this is the third time I’ve shaved Susan’s head: twice because of starting chemo, this time for radiation.

I thought back to the first time I shaved Susan’s head and how traumatic we all thought it was. This time I just thought, “If this is the tradeoff for Susan getting so much of herself back, this is a bargain.” Besides, she looks good this way.

The doctors say Susan’s likely to become more tired and weak as the radiation goes on. I haven’t noticed this happening yet, but we’ve got lots of help lined up for when (if?) it does. One sister just stayed a week with us, taking care of the family. Another sister’s coming at the end of this week. Then my mom’s taking a turn. Then yet another sister. And then yet still another sister.

I have never been so grateful to have so many hyper-competent and caring women in my family.

A couple of days ago, Susan mentioned she wishes the radiation was over and done with. I think I surprised her by disagreeing. “I wish it could go on indefinitely,” I said. “Because it’s helping.”

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