I spent 26 days in the Chemotherapy Room over a period of three and a half months. In that time, I observed a lot and learned a lot. Here are some of my musings:
1. A female always accompanied male patients to the chemotherapy room, whether as a daughter, wife, girlfriend or mother. By contrast, female patients were rarely accompanied by a male friend or loved one. Women battling cancer surrounded themselves with the females in their lives.
That observation made me think about stereotypical gender roles with respect to caretaking. Do women choose to be around other women at a difficult time because many women instinctively know how to care for others? Or, is it related to how men and women perceive the value of men’s work outside of the home versus women’s work outside of the home?
Women comprised my support system during my treatment. These females just did what needed to be done without me asking for it. Or, they would offer to help in specific ways and be available to me at specific times. (Some of these women worked outside of the home with traditional hours, while others weren't working or had a more flexible work schedule.)
The men in my life had to be told how they could help me, and none of the men I’ve written about in this blog ever accompanied me to get IVs. Several friends and readers commented that they wish I had a man who would be by my side through every part of this experience, but I didn’t. I think of how the majority of my friends’ significant others deal with care giving, child rearing, and health issues, and I’d much prefer to have someone by my side who knows what needs to be done and just does it.
2. I was the only bald woman in the Chemotherapy Room 24 out of 26 days. Think about that for a minute. A woman is going to receive chemotherapy, and that’s typically the only activity that she will be doing that day outside of her home. She will be in a room with her doctor, nurses and other cancer patients who are going through similar experiences. As she dresses, she puts on a wig, hat, scarf, or some combination of all three. What does that say about how she views herself and conventional standards of beauty and femininity?
The wigmaker for the Washington Opera Company kindly offered to help me pick out a wig that was similar to my natural hair color and length. I love the wig that we chose, but it doesn’t always look good on me. (Wigs made of human hair need to be washed and styled. When they aren’t well-maintained, they look rather funky.)
I had a great head of hair. Now, I’m bald because of chemotherapy. Why should I feel less sexy, beautiful or feminine because of that? Why should I care about making others feel more comfortable about my experience? Why shouldn’t I make people think about cancer while they’re out shopping at Whole Foods or grabbing a drink at L2?
In the Chemotherapy Room, other female patients would come up to me, saying how brave I was to go bald. And, at least one person approaches me when I’m out in public, saying how beautiful I look or sharing a story about how cancer has affected them. Last month, I put my wig in the corner of my closet and decided that’s where it should stay. I’m the girl, walking around town with a bald head. I've realized that feeling comfortable with my baldness and talking about my experience with breast cancer can help to educate others. That's important to me. I view my baldness like a badge of honor because I earned it.
3. The experience was tougher than I thought it would be, but I’m stronger than I thought I was. I knew that chemotherapy wouldn’t be easy, and I knew that it would hit me harder than most given my other medical conditions. But, I didn’t expect to require 20 additional days of IVs than the average person. It wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t always the most chipper person to be around. (My friends, especially Autumn and Tricia, deserve a medal for putting up with me.) But, I relied on my faith, counted my blessings that this was caught early, and reminded myself that this is part of God’s plan for me.
4. I came away from the Chemotherapy Room with a few epiphanies about my life and the direction that I want it to take. I’ve realized with a sense of calm and certainty that it’s time.
“Time for what?” you might be wondering.
That, my friends, is for another post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about stereotypical gender roles when it comes to caretaking and how you’ve reacted to seeing someone who has lost her hair from chemotherapy. xoxo