Mother, father, in-laws and sisters each came in turn to carry my Family through the most trying phases of my breast cancer treatment in Anchorage, Alaska. Between my visitors, local friends would volunteer to take my children to the park and bring us meals. It was while I was sleeping off the nausea, body aches and chills of chemo that my oldest son, 4, learned how to pump himself on the park swings, a skill I had looked forward to teaching him. I was sad to have missed this milestone, but I had only short windows of energy in the days just after a chemotherapy infusion so my friends helped to keep me from feeling too much guilt when I needed to rest.
My Family life was able to continue at pace even when I was out for the count.
As my helpers arrived, I knew that good communication would help us avoid many of the conflicts that so easily derail long-term Family visits.
In my attempt to maintain some normalcy and to continue to feel fulfilled as a wife and mother, I made two rules that were important to me.
Rule one: No matter what time of day or night, if Iím awake or asleep, whenever my little boys want to talk to me ó they will be allowed to come to me. This was difficult for my guests, because they wanted me to rest as much as I needed, but they respected my wishes.
Rule two: I still get to do the grocery shopping.
I didnít want to be a distraction in church or a spectacle at the grocery store, but a few months after my diagnosis I found myself in the local commissary for my regular shopping; my head smooth and shiny from multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
I didnít want to make others uncomfortable, but dang-it, I had cancer. I was already feeling powerless to control my body. I didnít feel like I should be required to endure greater anxiety and discomfort for the sake of silly social norms. For me anxiety and discomfort came from the wig and sometimes the bandanas and knitted caps I had been given, especially when I had hot flashes from my chemo-induced menopause. For other cancer patients, the anxiety and discomfort of not wearing a cover on their head would outweigh the discomfort of the various head covering options. Itís a very personal choice. In the end I opted for skin with the occasional scarf or beanie.
When I had hair people would warmly nod as we passed in the dairy section, or not notice me at all as they went about their business of choosing which brand of peaches to buy. Without my hair, many would fix their eyes on their chosen sundry item and remain that way an unnatural length of time until I passed them in the aisle.
I did not take offense to this because I knew exactly what they were doing and why. I had done the same thing thousands of times. I found it an intriguing observation that I wanted to learn from. What did I want from them? How did I wish they would interact with me?
I wanted them to look at me.
ďI am not a transparent ghost. Iím not dead yet. I am alive and standing right in front of you! Look at me. Acknowledge my presence. You donít have to give me sympathy, you donít have to comment on my obvious oddity. Just donít look through me. I donít demand that everyone smile and nod my way, but if you notice me, itís okay to . . . notice me.Ē
Others with physical impairments, scars, amputations, or uncommon features may have a different attitude than I. But from my experience, I suggest that when there is an elephant in the room, if you smile at her or acknowledge him, the elephant usually transforms into a person. We know that we donít look quite ďnormal,Ē but if you look in our eyes, and see us as a whole soul, youíll make our grocery shopping experience a little nicer. Your smile will make our day at the park brighter. Beyond that, perhaps youíll remind us that we are not only a bald head, a webbed scar, or a missing body part. That reminder is sometimes the simplest and most needful gift you can give, to anybody.
This weekís breast cancer awareness point is:
Itís okay, look at me.