What someone with cancer looks like...
There are so many different stereotypes we all carry around about the physical appearance and abilities of people with cancer (from popular culture or our own limited experience). These stereotypes are dangerous because they can stall policy & progress and keep us collectively ignorant of the real needs of the cancer community.
- •Hairless or HairySome chemos and radiation make you bald. Certain treatments actually make you lose all hair (nose, eyelashes, pubes, etc.). It's important to know that not all treatments cause you to lose your hair. Also, not all cancer is treated with chemo or radiation (sometimes surgery and/or alternative treatments or no treatment are used). There are lots of people walking around in cancer treatment who have tons of hair! The amount of hair you have has nothing to do with how good or bad your prognosis is.
- •Skinny or FatSome people suffer from nausea or loss of appetite as a side effect of cancer and/or certain treatments, making eating tough. There are many more options nowadays to combat these side effects with drugs. There are also some types of cancer, treatments and medications for side effects that include weight gain as a side effect. When taste or digestive abilities are affected patients have less nutritional options. When energy level and/or mobility is affected exercise can be limited or impossible.
- •Unable to do anything or doing everythingAs with any chronic illness, you can't tell how able and energetic a person is just by looking at them or even by knowing their diagnosis. Cancer and treatment can be very unpredictable. During certain phases of radiation or chemo exhaustion is common and often compounds over time. Sometimes we're prescribed steroids or other medications that can give us periods of high activity. Some of us with active cancer lead "normal" busy lives and you might never be able to tell we're not well.
- •Every Race and EthnicityJust like all media, the visuals of cancer that we have access to are often way too limited, and often way too white. Cancer affects all different types of people and sometimes mortality rates between groups vary dramatically. Cancer prevention and support must do a better job of including everyone and creating programs and resources that fit unique cultural communities. There are also some great examples of cancer orgs who primarily serve specific racial and ethnic populations.
- •Every AgeCancer in general does affect a larger number of older people (and there are specific types that are much more likely in younger people) but all different kinds of cancer affect people at all different ages. The specific issues faced and support needed for patients of different ages can be very different. Medical tools need to fit children's bodies and parent caregivers need special support. Young adults with cancer have unique challenges as well related to finances, career, and relationships.
- •Skin infections, Rashes and BurnsFor some of us our skin is like the canary in the coal mine and the first place to show the effects of cancer or treatment. For me, the first drug in 8 years that has shrunk my tumors has also caused this skin reaction. The pain, itching and lack of sleep can be unbearable at times, but the psychosocial effects are perhaps the worst. Hand and foot syndrome is a relatively common side effect of some treatments and it can make walking tough because it burns the skin on your feet.
- •Mobility Issues & AmputationsPain and Neuropathy are common challenges faced by cancer survivors who have had certain kinds of treatment. These can make it tough to get around sometimes. Numbness can lead to falls as well. Also, bone cancers like Osteosarcoma usually require surgery. Sometimes patients can get limb-sparing surgery or sometimes amputation is required. Either way they can live active lives and/or face mobility challenges.
- •Possible Breast or Testicle UpdatesBreast cancer and testicular cancer patients sometimes get the choice after surgery to reconstruct what they've lost with implants. Some people aren't able to, or decide that it isn't the right choice for them. Watch out with your criticism of fake breasts or women who don't breastfeed (because your judgement is never helpful and its mean) but also because you're judging many young women who've experienced breast cancer. There are no wrong answers when it comes to reconstruction after cancer.
- •Running to the restroomAlways learning where the closest restroom is has become an important habit for many of us with cancer. Frequency, urgency and incontinence (both urinary and fecal) are problems that can be the temporary or permanent result of cancer surgeries and/or treatments. Sometimes drugs for these side effects or a change in eating and drinking habits can help. Also, pelvic floor physical therapy can sometimes be a great option for getting a better understanding of the problem and possible solutions.
- •Depressed or Radiantly Happy!Many of us living with cancer experience a wide range of moods and we face unique mental health challenges. Cancer related PTSD is common and counseling is often a helpful resource. Experiencing cancer is tough and it exposes many fears, but it also often gives us new perspective. Some face serious depression, while others are happy to share our positivity with the world. Overall, we understand what it feels like to be happy to be alive better than most people (so you can learn that from us)!
- •Perfectly healthy lookingIt's typical for many of us to have points in our cancer journey where we look great! It doesn't necessarily mean we feel great, and it definitely doesn't necessarily mean that our cancer is gone. I sometimes hear, "you don't look sick!" and I don't quite know what to say to that. Thanks!? I hope this list helps you realize that sick doesn't look a certain way! I hope you'll take anything you learned here to help dispel the myths and break the stereotypes of what cancer looks like!