Looking The Part
Blame it on Hollywood or maybe those heart-wrenching cancer commercials, but society definitely recognizes a very specific, stereotypical look for cancer patients. It's as if the casting call states: "Actor needed. Must be pale, thin, bald, wear a headscarf and wear only cancer ribbon shirts. An affinity for coloring books and inspirational quotes preferred."
Hollywood cancer patient stereotype
I cringe any time a movie includes a cancer patient because they always look the same and are always used as a point of sadness or inspiration. Do directors understand that most cancer patients do not look like this? It's this stereotype that has people questioning me constantly if I really have cancer if my cancer really is late-stage, and how I must not feel bad because I don’t look sick.
Behind closed doors
Just the nature of my cancer experience and how sick I was, much of my cancer journey happened behind closed doors. I didn’t take visitors, so people didn’t see me frail and hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed. For six months I had bald patches, bruised arms, and couldn’t eat due to pain and pain medication. I lived in either a hospital bed or my childhood bedroom in my hometown. By the time I emerged in January and returned to work, much of my illness was well concealed. I had put back on some weight, I hid my thin hair with clip-in extensions, and ostomy bags are so easy to conceal under clothing.
Lack of understanding
The drawback to not looking sick has definitely been a lack of empathy for my situation. Especially as almost 2 years later, I don’t need hair extensions and I am back to being at about 99% of where I was pre-cancer diagnosis. I have coworkers who still think my regular doctor appointments are just an excuse for a long weekend or extra day off. And more importantly, when you don’t look like a stereotypical cancer patient, I often get comments about how I must be cancer-free or never had cancer in the first place. It's like the pain and fear I experienced for so long means nothing. And even now I live with a constant fear of cancer spreading.
In my pursuit of regaining a sense of normal and trying to live a full life, I no longer fit the mold society has for a typical cancer patient. But unfortunately, "looking OK" has definitely equated to people believing I no longer need support or that things are all better.
That is the whole problem. Not a single one of my friends in the cancer community fit this mold. Yes, some are bald, but not all. They work full time, they care for their families, they travel, go on dates, and have as much fun as possible in between doctor appointments and treatment. Most of us hate being a point of inspiration and hold a strong grudge for the coloring books everyone thinks we want to have during chemo.
Moving beyond the stereotype
We need to move beyond this cancer patient stereotype and only providing support to those who look the part. Just as we preach about invisible disabilities, body positivity, and mental health support for all, we need to give support to all cancer fighters. The cancer community is diverse in age, race, and gender. No one is going to look the way the movies have taught us to think they do.
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