I slipped out of work a couple of weeks ago to have a nice quiet lunch at Noah's over a Metro newspaper and enjoy the fabulous September weather we're having. I had just taken my first bite of sandwich when I noticed a woman enter in shorts, a t-shirt, a do rag and no hair anywhere on her face or head. She had a bandage on her arm where I'm assuming a picc line had just been removed or was hidden. She was obviously being treated for cancer.
I felt an immediate kinship with this woman whom I've never met before due to a disease that we had in common. I planned to wait for her to sit down so I could strike up a conversation with her. I was interested how her treatment was going and what kind of cancer she had. I wanted to connect with this person, to tell her good luck, to listen to her vent, and to enjoy a nice lunch with someone else who had cancer. I wanted to let her know that there are other's out there going about their lives, dealing with hardships similar to hers. Most of all, I just wanted to hear her story.
Alas, I never got that far. The more I thought about it, the less appropriate it seemed to approach a stranger in a restaurant, ask them if they had cancer and then ask them questions about it. The risk of putting my foot in my mouth was akin to inquiring if a woman was pregnant. What if the woman didn't have cancer after all? What if the last thing she wanted to do was talk about her treatment or disease with some random stranger? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed best not to approach her.
The feeling that settled over me and prevented me from approaching her was a combination of respect and fear. I did not want to risk causing this woman to focus on her cancer and potentially ruin an otherwise escapist meal. I wanted to respect her privacy despite her appearance making her cancer public and I feared potentially upsetting her.
I have the fortune (depending on your viewpoint) not to have any external signs that I have cancer. I've made it 4 months at my new job without any of my co-workers guessing that I have a medical condition, let alone cancer. I don't hide it (this blog is public and has my real name and picture attached to it), but I don't advertise it or offer information about it either. I find it a relief to shade my cancer in anonymity such that it's not the first thing that comes into someone's mind when we speak. I don't have to second guess people's expectations or evaluations of me, they expect from me what they would expect from a normal person. This woman did not have that luxury. She had no eyebrows and no hair. She was sporting the tell-tale "cancer hat". She couldn't hide her cancer if she wanted to and there was no way for her to get through a day without someone doing a double take as she passed due to her appearance.
But oh how badly I wanted to speak with her! I kept debating until she finally got up and went about her day, ambling off down the sidewalk with her companion. I'm now left with a feeling of loss for never having met this woman and experienced her story.
I would like to believe that people with cancer are in a club and we get some special privileges that others might not. We can broach topics that would be taboo for others because we've been there and done that. Despite the wildly varying treatments and procedures for cancer, we can at least sympathize with what a cancer patient is going through in ways that people who have never been through them cannot.
The reality is that each person deals with this differently. Some guard their privacy fiercely while others broadcast every trial and tribulation to anyone who will listen. You'll never know unless you ask, and this time I felt it best not to ask.
To the stranger at Noah's: I wish you all the luck possible with your treatment. There's someone out there that you don't know hoping that a positive outcome somehow finds you soon.