Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
Just because you don't look sick, it doesn't mean that you are not.
The sayings “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “looks aren’t everything” are famous. They tell us that we can’t make assumptions about the way someone or something looks. Although we all know this, it is very easy to make the mistake and judge a look anyway. In my life, this has become much more apparent after a cancer diagnosis. When I first found my lump, I was not worried. I had a whole bunch of thoughts go through my mind. Cancer was one, but for whatever reason I was not concerned. One of the main reasons was that I looked perfectly healthy. I felt fine, too, so I figured there was no way I could be sick. That was a tough lesson learned.
The same was said to me several times after my diagnosis. I heard it more than once. “But you don’t look sick.”
Oh, trust me, I know that thought. Then of course, I went through the treatment timeline of losing my hair to chemo. I was tired and worn out from weeks of the treatments. I actually did start looking sick when I was knee-deep in treatment, but that was really the only time I legitimately looked ill.
TV, movies and social media have a way of getting into our minds and portraying something to look one way when it’s not even close to the truth. Most people will be lucky enough to never face cancer. So, they won’t know what it is like to go through it and play the part of a cancer patient and survivor. Therefore, they rely on what they think they know from what they have seen on TV and movies. I must say I was one of those people. I had no idea what cancer looked like. I certainly plead ignorance on that one. So, as annoying as it is to hear, I try not to get too upset when people have said that to me.
I am seven and a half years done the road from my breast cancer diagnosis. Physically, my hair has grown back, and my scars, yet still present, have healed over. You could say that I don’t look like a cancer survivor. On the outside, I pretty much don’t. On the inside, however, it’s a whole other story. Emotionally, I look much different. I am working hard at healing my mind from the cancer trauma, but it still lingers. Those scars are very visible if you look deep. If you could see the inside, you’d think that I do look sick and that I do look the part of a cancer survivor. These are details that no one can portray on TV. No one can tell you how the emotions look and feel until you experience them yourself. So, it’s tricky to understand how to handle them.
My emotions look and feel drastically different than they did eight years ago when cancer was just a word I knew with no understanding of the way it felt. Trauma has a way of reconfiguring the way you think and the way you see things. It latches on to your thoughts in a way you can’t possibly want. It twists every ache and every pain into an amazing story that your cancer has come back to haunt you again. Cancer has a way of clouding over happiness and make you fear for the future. Will you have one? And if so, how does it look? Will you get to see your children grow up? Will you get to have a retirement party or celebrate a milestone birthday? These are the thoughts that change after diagnosis. This is the unseen way that you don’t look sick to the outside world, but you certainly feel it deep within.
It’s almost impossible to convey this to others who have not gone through cancer or any other sort of trauma. It’s not something you learn how to handle or how to act out if it happens to you. So, the next time someone says to you “but you don’t look sick,” don’t get overly upset. Think about what they don’t know. Think about what you didn’t know prior to your own diagnosis. Did you look sick? Did you feel sick? Did you know your emotions can stay sick deep within long after your hair grew back and your scars healed? Keep that in mind. It’s OK to feel all the above. Just because you don’t look sick doesn’t mean that trauma isn’t lingering.