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But You Don't Look Sick

It was my first outing while wearing a wig, born out of necessity as much as vanity. I was leaving a trail of hair wherever I went, and the cap, although uncomfortable, contained it. Just a few years earlier, I might not have been able to imagine such a thing. But now, for the second time, I was about to be bald, the tell tale indicator of my status as a cancer patient. Like before, I would conceal it, especially while out in public.

Most weeks, my dance card is filled with medical appointments, and this one was with a new primary care physician. I had high hopes for the beginning of a beautiful relationship. At the risk of sounding obvious, a good doctor can make a difference between life and death. I needed this missing piece in my ever-increasing entourage.

I filled out the obligatory patient forms and handed them to the receptionist. She skimmed through the paperwork, then smiled.

“Wow. You don’t look sick,” she said.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, managing a smile.

The nurse called me into the exam room and began to document my medical history. “You sure don’t look that sick,” she reiterated.

“I try. Pulled the old wig out of mothballs,” I teased.

The new primary doctor, who is wonderful by the way, put it another way. “You look well, considering the health challenges you continue to face.”

It was a compliment, and I gratefully accepted it.

Three days later I was standing in the checkout line at a small store. I had two bottles of organic weed killer in my cart. One made it onto the counter, but the other spilled all over the floor.

“Clean up on aisle one,” I said, trying to inject some humor. “I am so sorry. Evidentially, the cap wasn’t secured.”

“No problem,” said the lady at the register, eyeing the line of customers that were waiting impatiently behind me.

A strong aroma of cloves filled the air as the stock clerk appeared with a mop and bucket. “Weed killer,” he mumbled. Have to be careful. Causes cancer you know.”

“A little too late for me,” I muttered and then instantly regretted it.

“Really?” the cashier whispered. “You don’t look sick.”

I nodded. “Cancer doesn’t always look like it does in the movies.”

And I think that is true. We have mental images of what someone with cancer should look like, based on those Hollywood portrayals, but that’s a pretty big generalization. Sometimes, people who are living with cancer seem to be just fine, especially if they are able to make cosmetic concessions, like wearing a wig or makeup.

I certainly don't wear an "I'm sick" sign on my back, nor do I mention my condition in casual conversation, especially to strangers. I am not skinny or feeble, so I don’t appear to be ill if I make the effort. And I am grateful for that. Somehow, not looking so sick makes me feel better, more like my old self. Trust me: I have plenty of daily reminders of the state of my health. And I hide them well.

Based upon my own experience, I have come to understand that you never really know what someone else might be going through. Appearances are often deceiving. Quite frankly, a person’s physical or emotional challenges may not be apparent, which is why treating everyone with compassion and respect is important. Let’s face it: everyone is fighting some sort of battle, whether visible or invisible. Most of us are living with a bit of quiet desperation, right? I will certainly try to remember that when I am out in public and interact with strangers. How we treat each other is important. A smile or kind word create a ripple, and this is how we change the world, one person at a time.

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