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The Problem With Telling a Cancer Patient, 'At Least You Didn't Lose Your Hair'

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Yes. At least I didn’t lose all my hair, only significant clumps every time I combed it. A side effect of thyroid issues and cancer. At least my cancer is invisible to you. At least you don’t have to see the devastating effects of having a type of cancer that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy.

I don’t expect everyone to understand the ins and outs of thyroid cancer. There’s plenty I don’t know about the struggles other people have. But it’s part of the difficulty of having an “invisible illness.” I hear that phrase a lot when it comes to autoimmune disorders and thyroid cancer, however I wonder what type of illness is “visible?” Maybe the types of cancer that require chemotherapy. Maybe the disorders that take away your hair. Not everyone loses their hair from chemo, by the way.

Some of the struggles of having an invisible illness are different than those of having a visible one; however both are equal in their devastating effects. And sometimes the most devastating effects of each are “invisible” to outsiders. For example, the heavy toll that having a chronic or long-term illness has on the individual’s family. The psychological effects of living day in and day out with endless tests, doctors visits, follow ups, treatment, and having to worry about recurrence and future complications of past treatments.

While there is physical pain and fatigue that others don’t see, the emotional turmoil is where my real struggle lies. Most people understand pain and cancer-related physical symptoms, however if someone has not been through a long-term chronic illness, the psychological effects are difficult to empathize with because they are so invisible and personal. The mental fatigue, “brain fog,” memory problems, depression, anxiety, worry, loneliness and guilt; they are all unseen by the co-worker, friend or relative who checks in from time to time and wants the in-a-nutshell answer to “so how are you feeling?” It would take far too long to explain (and too much valuable energy). Most people don’t care to hear that every day you struggle just to open your eyes in the morning. That you can’t play with your kids for more than a couple minutes until you have to rest. That you desperately want to spend time with friends and family, but you are so fatigued it feels impossible.

Whether it can be seen by others or not, the diagnosis of a chronic illness, such as cancer or an autoimmune disorder, can rip lives apart. It affects everyone in different ways, and these ways do not need to be put on a scale and weighed for whose illness is worse. There’s a quote that says, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Yes, it is true that everyone endures struggles that may be hidden from the majority of people. But I wish we didn’t have to hide from each other. I wish we could start to let others into our worlds — successes, struggles and all. Maybe then we could start to look past what’s on the surface and connect on a much deeper level.

Follow this journey on The Best Cancer.

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Thinkstock photo by Lucid Surf

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Write a letter to yourself in regards to a cancer diagnosis. What would you say or wish someone had told you? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Originally published: January 10, 2017
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