Picture of Peggy CummingPeggy Cumming, is a wife, mother, grandmother of 6, sister, niece, cousin and friend, as well as a teacher – retired after 34 years in the classroom – and an athlete, currently in training for major surgery

“Hi. How are ya?”

“I’m great, thanks! How ’bout you?”

This typical Canadian greeting is repeated millions of times daily across our country, part of our polite character, and our culture. There may be acceptable variations on the reply, depending on how well the two people know each other.

“I feel a cold coming on, but I’m fine.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night, so I’m tired.”

It would be totally unacceptable to say, “I have a touch of lung cancer, but, other wise, I’m fine!” Simply. Not. Polite.

It is interesting that we ask each other this question so frequently, but we do not actually expect to listen to an honest answer. It is just the culturally accepted standard greeting. For me, when my honest answer was, “I’ve just been diagnosed with lung cancer, thanks,” I could not break cultural expectations and say that!

When I initially learned of my diagnosis, and people asked, ‘How are ya?’ I felt like a deer-in-the-headlights; I was stunned into silence. How could anyone possibly ask me that! Wasn’t it obvious! But, apparently ‘Lung Cancer’ wasn’t written all over my face the way I imagined it was. Responding with the truth was not culturally acceptable; telling a lie felt uncomfortable, so I was totally tongue-tied. I avoided social situations where I would meet acquaintances who would ask the dreaded, “How are ya?’. My answer was too raw, too strong, and too painful for me to say out loud, and for people to hear. I learned how to deflect with, “Hello. Nice to see you,” as a way to wiggle out of my tender truth.

Over the months since my diagnosis, and facing this every day, I’ve learned that there are three subtle factors that affect how I handle the greeting. First, how well do I know the person, and how comfortable do I feel with being honest. Second, the location of where the exchange is taking place – a very public space is not inviting, whereas a somewhat private location attracts honesty. Third, how much time is perceived to be available for the exchange. Are we rushing past in opposite directions, or do we meet and stroll together.

I have gone through stages of answering the greeting. After the deer-in-the-headlights phase, I found that I could say, “I’m fine, thanks…,” and continue the answer in my head, “…considering my situation.” That allowed me some honesty, but was still not totally satisfactory.

The months dragged by, and I was able to share my situation, on my terms and in my own time, with friends of my choosing. I also made the emotional expedition to find Acceptance, Gratitude, and Hope, and I grew to wear my situation like old socks. Eventually, when supportive friends asked, I could answer, “I’m fine, thanks!” with total honesty, and I was empowered to feel and express that emotion at every opportunity. My final stage, as I shared in the previous blog, is to discover a deeper truth, and say, “I’m pissed off! And I’m grateful.”

Some friends occasionally change the greeting somewhat, and ask, “How are you doing?” The addition of the word ‘doing’ changes the complexity of the question, and indicates a genuine concern. It encourages me to talk about details of tests or appointments, or my mental state, and I know that my listener is sincere.

In August, after completion of the diagnostic testing, I was called to my GP’s office for an appointment. I thought, “Over the phone means good news; in person, means bad news”, so I went with negative expectations. Once in the consulting room, I fidgeted, waiting for my GP to enter. As he opened the door, I pre-empted his greeting. “Don’t you dare ask me how I am!!!”
Being a big, affable teddy bear, he threw back his head and, through some tears, we both laughed.

Thank goodness.

Peggy has her own photoblog, the F-stops here, where she posts a photograph every day.