SMILE AND SAY HELLO! Yes, it's awkward and perhaps intimidating to look a cancer patient in the eye. Maybe people focus on our lack of eyebrows or sallow skin. Maybe they're just sad to see someone going through what they imagine to be tremendous pain in every sense of the word.
Solution: regardless of what you may feel, just smile and say hello.
This goes for anyone you may see with a physical condition that makes you feel uncomfortable. You know what it feels like when someone is staring at you or looking through you. Like when you play eye contact chicken on public transport and sheepishly look away from the person across from you before your eyes lock; you know they're looking at you too and you wait anxiously hoping that their stop is the next so that, God forbid, you don't accidentally make eye contact and escalate the awkwardness. Or you know, when you feel like people are looking at you strangely and eventually realize after few minutes that your middle shirt button is undone or that your underwear has come out to sun itself...
This happens every day to cancer patients. It's not momentary or situational awkwardness. Knowing that people are avoiding eye contact or are looking at you strangely lurks over you like a shadow and unfortunately, you can't get rid of it by buttoning your shirt properly or rearranging your underwear.
Peoples' stares or avoidance of eye contact are not I'll-intentioned. If I saw a guy with half of his face burned off, I'd probably have a similar reaction to how people look at me with my bald-head and sparse eyebrows. But, damn it, we are all human and we should do a better job of making people feel welcome, regardless of physical appearance. I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to this, but I'm committing to welcoming people and hope that you'll join me.
"This is a nice thought, Jonno, but where's this coming from?" You may be asking yourself. Fair question.
This morning I walked down to the hospital cafeteria here at UCLA hospital in Santa Monica to get a coffee. People looked at me like I was a ghost. (To be fair, I had forgotten to brush my teeth, so maybe it was my morning breath that set the stage.) No one could look me in the eye. Four or five people looked straight through me as I passed, towing my chemo stand on wheels (it looks like a metal version of an old fashioned coat rack with IV bags hanging off). I grabbed my coffee and went to sit outside because I'd been indoors for a long time. It is a rare dreary day here in Southern California and is cloudy with a cool lower 60s temp (I know, boo hoo, lower sixties - dreary in Boston means horizontal rain and 37 degrees). As I sat at the picnic table I felt small, which for me is rare as I'm 6' 3" and currently around 230 lbs (thanks to all the steroids I am required to consume). I drank my coffee quickly so I could get back to the judgment-free zone and privacy of my hospital room.
When I finished my coffee, I went back into the cafeteria and a woman who sat at a table directly opposite the double doors looked me smack dab in the eyes with a wide grin on her face and said "good morning, how are you today?"
I immediately felt human again. From ghost to person, her kind gesture melted my isolation instantly. Thank you stranger.
Remember, just smile and say hi. It goes a long way.