THE BLOG

Yes, That Cancer Patient Over There Knows That You're Staring at Them

09/08/2015 18:39 BST | Updated 09/08/2016 10:59 BST

My life changed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I found people's attitude to my post-chemotherapy hair loss as painful as the treatment itself.

I had recently finished treatment and was finally strong enough to travel when I arrived at Gatwick airport, looking forward to visiting a friend I hadn't seen for eight months. I was feeling confident and excited to finally be out. In hindsight I should have locked myself up for at least another month.

I was walking down stairs next to an escalator in the middle of the airport when I became aware of a woman and a girl on the escalator calling out to the man walking in front of me. They were urgently trying to attract his attention.

Reaching the foot of the stairs it hit me like a sledgehammer that I was the target of their curiosity. My post-chemotherapy look was considered suitably freakish to warrant being pointed out, and this woman wanted to make sure her husband didn't miss the opportunity to check me out. I know my hair will grow back and I really should feel sorry for that particular person as she is too ignorant to know how much hurt this caused me because that old adage of sticks and stones sometimes doesn't work.

I walked away with my (baldish) head held high but fighting back tears.

This is a problem which affects a lot of people who have gone through chemotherapy, especially women. The joy of finishing treatment and feeling better is totally wiped out by feeling unable to be in public doing normal stuff such as shopping, travelling etc. without being stared at or even pointed at. Then there are those who have seen you but pretend they haven't, perhaps they think it's catching?

Last September I was diagnosed with stage 3, invasive breast cancer. The lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, all of it I faced head on as anyone in the same position would. I also had to bear the devastating news that my hope to start a family would never happen as chemo brings on an early menopause.

It was tough and heart-breaking and the side effects were vile but you do it, and thankfully throughout my treatment I could see the very best side of human nature in the support I got from family, friends and medical staff. Sadly, outside of that bubble I had a glimpse of some of the worst, and it burnt more than the radiotherapy.

There are certain realities you have to face when you have a cancer diagnosis. Life is never going to be quite the same again. Chemotherapy saps your strength and energy levels and the radiotherapy is sore long after you leave the unit, but worse than the treatment itself, for many women, is the hair loss.

I didn't try to stave off losing my hair with a cold cap. I had heard it could be very painful and didn't always work. So when my hair inevitably started to fall out in great clumps I didn't try and cover it up, I decided it was all or nothing and I shaved it off. Losing your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes is like being stripped of all your femininity, you just don't feel like yourself anymore. I avoided looking in mirrors and only saw people I knew. The reaction of some of the general public made it so much worse.

I feel genuine empathy for anyone out there going through the same experience but who will be unable to face the world, because the world can't face them.

There are an estimated 2.5million people in the UK fighting cancer and a lot of them are going to be losing their hair. The alternative sees more people shutting themselves indoors, not wanting to leave the house and advertise their cancer patient status to a gawping public.

My hair has grown now, more of a 'look' than a reminder of a horrible process I have gone through, and yet I can't stop thinking about the brave women out there who are facing these stares for the first time, only daring to go out with an uncomfortable head covering to protect the feelings of others. Something needs to change.

This August, Macmillan Cancer Support is asking people to 'Brave the Shave' in order to support people going through cancer. To find out more, or sign up, visit www.bravetheshave.org.uk