When I thought of cancer before I was diagnosed, I thought of people who looked frail, had lost their hair, who were visibly ill. But, not everyone with cancer is bald.
One thing I love about the New York Times project, “Picture Your Life After Cancer,” is the variety and diversity of the people in the pictures. Some are disfigured, some are bald, some are thin, some are muscular, and some look like the people I see at the grocery store or the coffee shop: tall, short, overweight, fit, sad, preoccupied, happy, young, old, middle aged.
When I look around my support group I see many people who, like me, do not look sick. Some of these people are finished, for the moment, with treatment for their cancer. Some have had the “all clear” from a recent test, some are in remission, and some are in limbo.
When we look like we’ve always looked, people are relieved, I think. To the uninitiated looking “normal” means we’re “winning the war.” I understand that, and I am often relieved to be treated normally, especially at work. But, people with cancer never forget that they have cancer, and they need family and friends to initiate conversations sometimes. It’s lonely out here in Cancerville, and it’s hard to communicate with people in the borderlands.
One of my friends at the Cancer Support Center, Fran, told me that once at a family dinner no one mentioned her cancer despite discussing other relatives’ back issues or chronic illnesses. She assumed this was because she didn’t look sick. “I needed to know that people cared. . . . So, don’t assume people with cancer that look normal are not having a hard time or feel like crap.”
Cancer is insidious, in part, because we often don’t know it’s there. Some cancers have no symptoms or have symptoms that are common to other illnesses. A pain in the leg, a urinary tract infection, a headache, or nausea causes us to seek medical help and, BAM, a CT scan and a blood test later, you hear the “C” word. Once you have cancer, every ache sets off alarms. You never have just a headache or a sore knee. You have a symptom that threatens another test and another diagnosis.
I suppose what I’m saying is that people with cancer sometimes look just like people without cancer, but we don’t feel like people without cancer. We carry the weight of suspicion. We bear the burden of knowledge that hideous cells inside us can reproduce silently and invisibly. When your world has been irrevocably changed, it’s hard to think that others look at you and still see a normal person.
Suffering is sometimes etched in a face, reflected in a bald head, and heard in a slow shuffle. Sometimes the suffering is not visible to passersby. There are days when I want to make my diagnosis obvious to onlookers because I need the acknowledgment. Most days I’m grateful that I have not lost my hair or become too ill to work. And, I’ve learned to look at people differently, to remember that I can’t always see the burdens people bear.
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