Saturday, September 20, 2014
Day 71 of 100 Days of Good Karma.
I go back and forth on wanting to wear a wig and just wearing a scarf. Wigs can be itchy and hot, but I get fewer stares when I wear it.
And the truth is that not having hair bothers me. More than I’d like to admit.
Being bald marks me as a cancer patient, and thus earns me all the social stigmas associated with the disease.
When I was first diagnosed, I thought what I feared was the pity of others. I started the 100DaysOfGoodKarma project in an effort to offset that pity. A sort of class clown “laugh at yourself before others can laugh at you” defense mechanism.
This project has turned into so much more. It’s kept me sane, and hauled me through some really shitty days. And I firmly believe it has changed, for the positive, how my readers treat me.
Unfortunately, it does nothing for offsetting the reactions of strangers.
We had pizza delivered the other night and I didn’t think anything of answering the door with a scarf on my head. I was at home, after all, and this is Texas where it might be September but it’s still hot as hell outside.
After I paid, the delivery guy gave me a long look and said, “Ma’am, I hope you have a good night.”
I recognized the tone and the look. It was just a little too sincere coming from a stranger, his voice just a little too low and reverent. I frightened him because cancer frightened him.
All I could do was sigh and thank him before closing the door.
The same thing happened when two guys came to the door offering a window washing service. They modified their goodbye with, “Ma’am, I hope you have a blessed day,” but the tone and the look were the same.
With one or two exceptions, other parents avoid me if I wear a scarf when I pick the kids up from school. They glance up to my scarf and then look away like they got caught doing something dirty. Conversations are brief to nonexistent.
I don’t think any of them consciously think, “I’m not going to talk to her. She has cancer.” Their reaction is totally involuntary and spurred by fear.
I don’t blame them. I’m a walking example of one of their biggest fears. I very likely did the same thing before I was the one with cancer.
Sadly, the avoidance is not just from the parents at the school. People I considered friends started avoiding me when they learned of my diagnosis.
I consider myself fortunate that I have far more people in my life who care enough to not avoid me.
When I wear a scarf, strangers approach me because they also went through cancer.
One woman followed me around in the grocery store before she found the courage to ask if I had cancer. I got her diagnosis story, her cancer stage and her medical history before she even mentioned her name. She was a sweet woman, just looking to be supportive. But I doubt she’d have asked me about cancer if I’d been wearing hair.
And there was the guy in a coffee shop who tried to peek under my scarf.
He reached his hand out toward my head, saying, “What do we have going on under here? Is there anything left?”
Luckily I ducked his hand before he could remove my scarf.
He went on to tell me that he’d had brain cancer three times. He even removed his hat to show me the scars on his head. I forgave him for the social impropriety of trying to remove my head covering because I think some damage was done during one of the brain surgeries.
But I still declined his suggestion that we should be Facebook friends.
I turned to the internet looking for an answer to deal with these types of interactions.
Google ‘cancer stigma’. Go ahead. You’ll be amazed at what comes up.
I found an incredible number of articles associated with the stigmas surrounding cancer.
Around the world, cancer patients experience that people may:
I’ve encountered the hurtful. There was the stranger who laughed, though I’ll never know if it was because she thought I had cancer or if she just thought I had a strange haircut.
An article on CancerWorld.org summarized a study conducted by the LiveStrong foundation (you can read the article here.) The LiveStrong foundation found these common views on cancer from around the world:
This last one shocked me.
Justin and I have talked about a lot of hard things since I was diagnosed, but divorce has never once been one of them. My heart goes out to those who have been diagnosed with cancer and had a spouse leave them because of it. Having cancer is hard enough without adding a sense of abandonment.
I was surprised to see my experiences articulated in articles written by total strangers. It is both sad and reassuring than these stigmas are experienced world wide. Sad because I hate that anyone has to go through this, but reassuring to know I’m not alone.
Today’s silver lining: I can share this information with you. And maybe help end the stigma of cancer.
What’s your silver lining today? I love comments!