You Don’t Look Sick

4 Dec


I don’t fit the physical profile of a typical cancer patient.  When people think “cancer”, they usually envision someone middle-aged or elderly who has lost their hair and a substantial amount of weight due to the side effects of their treatment.

I was diagnosed at age 25.  Chemo didn’t make my hair fall out.  And my drugs made me gain 100 pounds in a year.  Everyone who found out that I had cancer was surprised because they thought I looked as healthy as a horse.

But appearances can be deceiving.  I may look like the healthiest girl in the room, but I’m not.  In fact, I’m likely to predecease them all.

Not looking sick can land you in a lot of uncomfortable situations as, unfortunately, people most often judge you on your looks.

Take, for example, a trip on public transport in Switzerland.  There are signs posted all over the bus asking passengers to give up their seats for those who are elderly, pregnant, or disabled.  When I was healthy, I was always the first person in the bus to stand up and cede my seat.  But after I began chemo, I was no longer strong enough to stand for a bus ride, and my sense of balance was affected, to boot.  My mom had to become a “tiger mother”, forcing her way through the bus in order to save a seat for me.

Or a trip to the public restroom.  My leg muscles are not strong enough to allow me to stand up from a standard commercial toilet without some assistance from my arms.  Therefore, I use the handicapped stall, which has handicapped bars that I can use to haul myself up.  Without the bars, I have to propel myself up by placing both of my hands on the toilet seat, which is disgusting and unsanitary.  I always have to worry about what will happen if someone with a walker or a wheelchair comes in while I’m in the stall, because it’s visibly obvious that they need it, but not visibly obvious that I do, too.  I have hidden in the handicapped stall in public bathrooms until other handicapped patrons have left, just in order to avoid an embarrassing confrontation. (Note to bathroom designers: two handicapped stalls would be great.  That way handicapped people, who naturally take longer to use the restroom than able-bodied patrons, would be less likely to be shut out of an accessible stall.)

The incident that upset me the most happened at the synagogue during a Shabbat service. One of the men in the congregation had the gall to criticize me for not standing up during kiddush.  I felt like saying, Look, dude, I’m not deaf.  I heard the rabbi invite us to stand.  Neither am I blind,” (actually, that’s not entirely true — I have some sight loss in my right eye), “I can see that everyone else is standing.” But I didn’t.  I just smiled and nodded and ignored him for the rest of the service.

Of course, there are little old ladies who don’t stand for the same reason that I don’t — because we’re not capable of staying on our feet for that long — but nobody dares criticize them.

It’s enough to make you contemplate wearing stage makeup to make you appear sickly.


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