My scalp was painful, covered in tiny bumps, resulting from an inflammation of the hair follicles. I had been warned that my weakened immune system would have a hard time fighting the simplest of attacks. This, along with the mouth sores which followed, was proof of that. I had an appointment with my doctor and a few necessary errands to run, but faced the dilemma of how to appropriately cover my tender bald head since wearing a wig was out of the question. I experimented with ball caps and straw hats before ultimately deciding on a haphazardly tied scarf. Truth be told, I had to watch a You Tube video twice to avoid looking like a Russian peasant woman, and in the end, I wasn’t any more satisfied with how I looked than when I started. Sometimes, you just have to do what is necessary, and this was one of those times.
The headgear made me feel awkward in public since it announced my cancer battle to the world. I have still not fully accepted how I look. I have been altered, no doubt. Heck, even the face recognition on my phone no longer identifies me. But there was also a part of me that was curious as to whether or not people would treat me differently. I’m always open to informal sociological experiments. I wish I could report that folks were quick to open doors for me or offer a sympathetic smile, but most looked away, even in confined places like an elevator or the checkout line at the pharmacy.
Somehow, my presence made them feel uncomfortable, which made me feel that way as well. And those who did speak to me were anxious to tell me about friends and relatives who also had this dreaded disease. One woman commented on the two desserts I was eating in the restaurant. I politely agreed that I wasn’t supposed to have sweets, but that it was all I could currently taste, and I was treating myself. After a quick lecture on the evils of sugar, she proceeded to tell me in great detail about her cousin and neighbor, both of whom died a slow and painful death from “that awful cancer.” The chocolate cake stuck in my throat as I nodded politely, and then, wondered why folks like to share the horror stories of those they have known who tragically perished “after a brave fight.” I suppose that it is a feeble attempt at empathy, but it left me feeling downright depressed.
I did have a quick encounter with a woman in the grocery store who asked if I had cancer and then whispered, “You are going to be just fine.” And as I have recently discovered, that seems to be a common way to greet those of us who are obviously in treatment. I know that it is offered in an effort to be supportive and helpful, but somehow it trivializes the disease that most assuredly wants to take my life. I hope to be fine, in fact, I plan on it, but I am painfully aware of the fact that I don’t have a hangnail or a cold. I will never be cured unless by some Divine miracle. Of course, I smile and nod, but inside, I feel a little injured, which perhaps is being overly sensitive on my part. Who’s to say?
I am not so sure that there is the perfect phrase to say to a cancer patient, something powerful and inspiring to engrave on a coffee mug without seeming condescending. I think being sick can sometimes make us a little emotionally fragile. But it is always nice when people sincerely want to know how you are feeling, and it is certainly reassuring when they offer prayers on your behalf. And sometimes, it is also great to talk about the weather or music or current events. I like to know what’s happening in your world as well. In other words, treat someone with cancer the way you treat anybody else. For us, normal is pretty darned special.
And maybe next time I have to go out without my wig, I will simply say that I am trying to make a fashion statement. After all, those television commercials tell us to embrace being different, even if that means wearing glitter from head to toe. I should try that.