When I first found out I had cancer and later when I began to lose my hair, I worried about how people in public would see me. I wondered what strangers would say to me and whether people would change how they treated me due to my change in appearance. To my surprise, I found that I just wasn’t that important :-)! No one stopped and stared, other than a few children who were curious or confused. No one pointed and laughed and rarely did anyone even ask me about my change in hairstyle or wig. When people would make comments, they were always complimentary. Many people commented on my initial buzz cut, asking how I had the courage to cut my hair off. A few people even thought I’d done it on purpose and never even made the cancer connection.
Over time I became so comfortable with being bald that I continued shaving my head despite the peach fuzz that was growing back even during my chemo sessions. My husband jokingly said to me that my freshly shaved head looked less cancery and more intentional. Though I laughed off his comments, I’m now realizing that he was right – as always. Now that chemo is over and I am attempting to let me hair grow back in, it looks much more cancery. I am more obviously wearing a sign that says, “Yes, I’m going through cancer”. People can tell within moments of seeing me that I went through something and there is no mistaking it for a very courageous and purposeful hair style change. This change has brought with it very interesting social interactions. I am likening this experience to the baby belly phenomenon. I have heard women say time and time again how odd it is that strangers feel comfortable coming up and touching their baby bump. I’ve experienced a similar reaction in regard to how people have approached me since I have been sporting the post-chemo peach fuzz.
In the past two weeks, strangers have hugged, kissed, consoled, and coddled me. I have shared many long conversations with strangers, more than most people would like to have in a year’s time. I found myself talking to Mac tonight trying to figure out the reason for this. Normally when you see a stranger or acquaintance you say hello and ask how they are doing before quickly going about your business. In my case, and I am sure many survivors can relate, people are compelled to say more. Just asking how you are doesn’t seem like enough, and then people don’t know when to end the conversation. The conversation rambles on with stories, anecdotes about friends or family with cancer and the obligatory questions about your treatment and how you’re feeling. After this lengthy interaction the conversation usually ends with the person saying they will pray for you, or wishing you good luck. I detail these interactions, not to place blame or find fault, but to simply bring light to these situations and share this common ground with other survivors or the people on the other side of these situations feeling awkward and at a loss for what to say. When I removed myself from these awkward interactions I was recounting, I realized that it’s all about personal experience and connecting. When people see me, they see their sister going through cancer, they see their neice who just finished chemo, they see their mother preparing for surgery. Emotion overcomes them and they want to connect with this person who shares a common thread with them. I cannot fault them for that and even though I may find some (ok most) of these interactions awkward and uncomfortable, I realize that my friend, my mother, my husband or I may all be on the other side of these interactions in the future. A year from now, when I see that bald woman in line at Target, I will flash back to this time and I imagine my emotions will come flooding back. I may not be able to resist running over to her and striking up a conversation or asking to hug her just to share with her that I understand, I get it, I am there for her.
I am curious what other cancer survivors or loved ones feel about this topic? How have strangers reacted to your bald head or other physical ailment? Does it bother you when strangers react in this way or do you enjoy it. I guess it’s all a lesson in self identifying what kinds of interactions you appreciate and practicing compassion towards others. You never know what is going on in someone else’s life and what that interaction may mean to the other person. Recognizing that there is never a perfect response or just the right thing to say may take the pressure off of both people. Just be yourself! Genuine kindness and caring are always appreciated. Respecting boundaries and asking what someone is comfortable with in terms of touching, or sharing may be a good starting place. You never know, what works for some, may not be appreciated by others.
*I apologize for the noise in the background. That is Sophie chewing on a bone.