by Marie Notcheva
In my career as a medical interpreter, one of the places where I have weekly assignments is a well-known cancer hospital in Boston. With a beautiful interior and compassionate staff, well-trained in maintaining patients’ dignity, it has more the feel of a 5-star hotel than a hospital. This is intentional. Cancer is a horrible disease synonymous with suffering, and any measure of comfort offered to patients and families is designed to help them escape that horror.
The pain cancer inflicts is not only physical.
The Chemo Floor
This week, I was sitting in a chemotherapy ward with my patient (an elderly Bulgarian man with a good prognosis). Treatments last several hours, and after consenting the patient I settled in, mindlessly scrolling Instagram and Facebook on my phone. A young woman receiving chemo, seated perhaps 12 feet across from me, seemed to be staring at me. She did not look happy. No one having toxins pumped into their body could be expected to look happy. Each time I looked up, she’d shift her gaze.
The third time I looked in her direction, I made eye contact and smiled. “Weird weather we’re having, isn’t it? A snowstorm in April,” was the wisdom that came out of my mouth. Ignoring my meteorological observation, she blurted out what was on her mind.
“I used to have hair like yours.”
Her tone was one of mourning. It was hard to tell how old she was, as chemotherapy has the additional effect of bloating the patient’s face. Staging, tumor markers, and life expectancy sometimes seem more abstract than the immediate loss–of hair; of fertility; of physical beauty–to women. I realized with shock that aside from the nurse, I was the only woman in the room who had hair. Seeing this every day causes a sense of desensitization–they are “medical encounters,” but I cannot fully enter into the pain of the patients, and the anguish of a young woman losing her hair.
And I wanted to.
I maintained eye contact. “I’m very sorry you lost your hair,” I said. “That must have been very, very hard for you.” Her eyes filled up, and she just nodded. I’m sure she didn’t need to be reminded “It will grow back” or be told “Oh, but it’s only hair!” for the umpteenth time.
Even the Hairs on Her Head are Numbered…
As Christians, we’re so quick to focus on “things above” and “spiritual fruit” that there is almost a temptation to gloss over temporal things (like hair loss), or even to dismiss them as vanity. But the desire to look and feel beautiful, or even pretty, is so deeply ingrained in all women everywhere that to dismiss it as trivial would be callous and insensitive. I believe that this aspect of cancer is harder on women than on men (older men will sometimes even joke about losing what little hair they have left). For a woman, it is not a joke. It is an unparalleled tragedy. It is not possible, or even appropriate, to force every such cause of grief into our theological mold. It is far more important to simply care…as Christ would, and does, about every aspect of her life (Luke 12:7).
Simple compassion often happens far from the counseling office. How would we counsel a woman who mourns the loss of her hair, or her breast? We would certainly assure her that she is still beautiful in God’s eyes, and that she should trust Him with her future. There are probably lots of ways we could encourage her in her relationship with the Lord as she struggles with the pain of a (possibly terminal) illness. But one need not be a counselor (or even know much theology) to extend the kind of caring a woman desperately needs in such times.
The Bra Fitting
The following day, I was back at the same hospital to interpret for an older woman who had lost a breast. This was not a medical appointment. She was being fitted for a special bra and prosthesis in the hospital’s boutique. The cheerful assistant helped the patient choose a fashionable bra in spring colors, made sure all was symmetrical, and repeatedly told her how great it fit her. And the amazing thing was that she was totally sincere. The tears came when the patient took it off, and she began apologizing to the assistant for her ugly mastectomy scar. The young woman wiped her tears, hugged her and assured her that she was beautiful.
This, more than blood test or CT imaging results, is often what a woman needs to hear. It was an incredibly touching moment, and solidified a lesson in compassion I want to remember not only in counseling, but in daily Christian life. All women have insecurities, and when we are sensitive to one another’s needs for encouragement and reassurance God always provides opportunities to build one another up.
A Valid Need for Beauty…and Love
This is not one of my more “theological” posts. So often in discipleship, we get so caught up in the doctrine and biblical principles that apply to a situation (which are crucial, of course), that we forget simple, basic emotional needs which were instilled by the Creator. Of course spiritual growth is of higher importance than appearance. No one would deny this, and it is a comfort to remember God’s definition of beauty: “…a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). But we also have permission to “weep with those who weep….mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), even when it is “just hair” they are mourning, or loss of physical beauty. Women, like men, are image-bearers of God and the desire to reflect beauty is good, legitimate and, when appropriately channeled, a godly desire. When enduring this very personal loss, women don’t need chipper-sounding platitudes or Bible verses. They need compassion, hugs, and assurance that they are still beautiful and have much to offer…and maybe, a friend to take them bra or scarf shopping.