PUBLISHED ON: 24 August 2018

Rebecca, who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer earlier this year, writes a letter to the strangers who cannot see she has cancer.

Rebecca and her mum

Dear stranger

You don’t know me, and we may have only encountered each other on the street, on a train, or perhaps in a crowded oncology waiting room. You may have glanced at me, with my made-up face, pretty dress and big smile, and thought nothing more of our meeting.

On the other hand, perhaps you saw the bags under my eyes, my lymphoedema sleeve, and my Please offer me a seat disability badge, and realised that something was wrong – but what? I wonder if these things puzzled you. I don’t look particularly unwell, and only a trained eye may see that my short hair and sleeve most likely equal cancer. It may be that you glanced over in a restaurant, and saw me surreptitiously taking my pills, thinking that the bright colours looked a bit exotic to be paracetamol. Or perhaps you heard me chatting with a friend about my oncologist, my radiotherapy or chemotherapy regime.

Was it you who gave me your seat?

I’m writing this letter so as to thank you for your compassion. It may be that you leapt out of your seat when I asked to sit down, or went above and beyond to squeeze in my appointment. Was it you that invited me in front of you in the queue, or brought me my tea and sandwich so that I didn’t have to be jostled at the counter? Or perhaps you were the nice stranger in the waiting room with whom I exchanged a knowing look, one that conveyed a hundred words of comfort and reassurance – 'we’re in it together, you and I.'

In any event, that moment of connection, when you acted selflessly and kindly, was much appreciated. Thank you.

You see, your act of generosity was more significant than you may realise. You weren’t to know that in fact my back was agony that day, or that my scan results had been unfavourable (again). You had no idea that a fellow stranger had barged me out of the way to board before me, or that I was just feeling, well, cancery and low.

You don’t know me, and have no reason to go out of your way to be kind to me. But it never fails to delight me when you do. From your perspective, riding a few stops without a seat isn’t a great inconvenience, but for me it can mean a period of constant bangs and painful jolts to my back. Perhaps seeing me a little earlier than appointed chipped a few minutes off your lunch break, but it saved me having to rush across town.

Rebecca after running a race

Was it you couldn’t see my cancer?

Sometimes fellow strangers aren’t so forthcoming. Some of them glare at me when I ask for a seat. They clearly wonder if anything is wrong with me. One woman even told me that I shouldn’t expect her to be a mind reader and, when I sought to explain, she said she wasn’t listening to me anymore.

Some slightly more cynical strangers clearly believe I’m a fraud. To those people, I say, my disability isn’t obvious. You may be cheesed off having to wait at the prescriptions counter while I collect my weekly sack of meds, but I look at you and think, gosh, I remember with great affection the days when collecting an antibiotic prescription was a significant occasion. You may be temporarily inconvenienced in some way, but if it’s any consolation to you, I’m inconvenienced about 90% of the time. I long for the day when standing for four minutes was the worst part of my day!

To the doubters, I say, I can’t show you my cancer, and I (like most other cancer patients I know) don’t want to go into the ins and outs of why I need help. However, I assure you that I do. Your inconvenience is not my intention. Please, please don’t assume that looking well equates to feeling it. I really don’t expect to have to wave my chemo book at you, whip out my mastectomy scars or point out the bruising from the latest injections.

I can’t expect you to know

So, dear stranger, how can I expect you to know what I need?

To be fair, I generally ask, and saying, 'Please would you give up your seat' or 'You’ll have to bear with me, I’m a bit slow', is pretty clear. I can think only of a few occasions when you have, well, been mean to me, but these are few and far between. (Although the woman on the train, who literally refused to listen still upsets me.) Perhaps your day was worse than mine.  

In contrast, I can recall so many acts of kindness. The girl with the enormous suitcase who surrendered her seat, the lovely make-up counter girl who showed me how to create eyebrows, the acupuncturist who refused to accept payment, the waitress who gave me a free cookie, the race organisers who let me defer my place until I’m feeling better, the flight attendant who gave me champagne and goodies, and my niece’s school friends who helped raise money for charity. And I can’t even begin to tell you how overwhelmed I am by those of you who work for or support cancer charities like Breast Cancer Care – you may never have met me, and yet you treat me as if I’m a member of your family. It’s overwhelmingly kind and generous.

My dear stranger, I thank you

You may never read this letter, but, every time you extend me a kindness I know that you’re trying to make my day a bit better, and that means a lot.

Yours in gratitude,

Rebecca

 

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