I’m a relatively private person, not one to air their dirty laundry, so to speak, on social media or to the general public for that matter. In fact it has always been a running joke among my students; I won’t reveal anything about myself so they speculate. For instance, one class, that has since graduated, decided that if I wouldn’t tell them about my life they would instead tell me what they assumed or could conjure up; which was a relationship with a dentist (apparently I had too many dental visits one year and it seemed suspect), who enjoyed outdoor activities and drove a sweet car. They called him Roger and even gave me birthday flowers one year from my fictional dentist boyfriend Roger. Clearly my students had far too much time on their hands, but case in point I never thought it necessary to inform the masses about my personal life – to my students or anyone else for that matter. But the news of my cancer quickly became public once I told my students and even more so once I had to shave my head.
Once hair becomes optional it becomes harder to blend in with the crowd. By optional I mean I wear my wig on special occasions, when no scarves match my outfit, I want to feel normal, or am around my sweet goddaughter who seems a little reluctant to come see me in a scarf. Aside from those days, I pretty much rock the scarf. Sarah, an IV nurse from my local hospital, said it all worked out because otherwise how would I have ever known I was an attractive scarf chick. (Definitely a silver lining). I love the scarves and have fun finding new ways to tie them and am excited every time I add a new scarf to the collection, but they do draw attention. Even though no one comments, people look at you differently; sometimes sympathetically and sometimes as if you have a horrible sense of style and didn’t realize gypsy wasn’t a style. Small children move a little closer to their parents when they see you and some even point or ask their moms why that lady looks funny. I’m always more interested in the response of the parents, who explain that it could be a religious preference, a style choice, or possibly that I am sick. Either way, what I am is noticeable.
At school, some students (who never had me or were not my actual students) were somehow offended my new look. They saw my scarf wearing as a violation of the rules and felt that it was unfair. Some were vocal about it to other staff members, who were appalled by the lack of empathy displayed by these teenagers. Some of these students immediately felt bad after being told that I was wearing the scarf as a result of my recent cancer status but others still felt as though it should not be allowed. It didn’t stop me from showing up to work everyday and doing my job as I had been for the last eight years. And hopefully my students and those in the building were able to gain some perspective. I allowed the students to ask questions if they had them in hopes that it could generate understanding or provide a teachable moment. One girl was most curious by the very visible tube in my neck that connected to my mediport. I explained how it worked and she said “I would rather die than have a tube under your skin that people could see” and very factually I replied “and you would then” and explained that sometimes you have to do things in life that you may not want to, but they have a much greater purpose.
I think the visible elements or public views of cancer are what people dwell on – the hair loss, the scars, the paleness – but in reality those are the things that matter least. So what if the world knows you have cancer, what is important is how you react to having cancer. So in some ways I was okay with my public cancer status because I wanted others to see how I chose to handle it. I’ll keep wearing my scarves and let my biopsy scars serve as reminder of how hard you have to fight. My modeling career might be over but my life isn’t and hopefully my very public attitude about cancer might change at least one person’s private view about it!