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An Awkward Exchange

My name is Ashley and I’m 37 and have lived in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago my entire life. I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer shortly after my 35th birthday but fought for almost eight months to get a healthcare professional to take me seriously. They all said I was “too young," had no family history and nothing to worry about. It was a plastic surgeon who finally recognized the gigantic 6.6 centimeter lump in my right breast was not “nothing” – he had me in a breast surgeon’s office the very next day. Two weeks of fertility treatments, egg retrieval/embryo preservation, five months of IV chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, 33 rounds of radiation, six months of oral chemotherapy, a battle with radiation pneumonitis and two years of hopes, prayers and crossed fingers later -- here we are.

So far, I’m one of the “lucky” ones. Even though it took the better part of a year to receive a diagnosis, my cancer never traveled to the lymph nodes. My plastic surgeon, jokingly says, “It got to be a really big f***ing cat, but it didn’t get out of the bag."

I work as a healthcare performance improvement consultant. I spend my days working with hospitals and healthcare providers implementing sustainable financial, operational and clinical performance enhancements. In order to do so, I’m on the road every week Monday through Thursday. A typical week for me includes air travel, rental cars, hotel rooms, restaurants and, of course, various hospital departments; ultimately, exposure to A LOT of germs. My first thought when I finally wrapped my brain around the intense treatment I would have to undergo was my job. How would I possibly be able to keep up with the schedule my job requires? Looking back, I laugh because who thinks that way? Who cares about a job when your life is on the line? I think it was my way of coping or compartmentalizing my disease so that it didn’t define me; it was just another part of my busy schedule.

I made a deal with my medical oncologist that I would continue traveling throughout treatment, but I would be smart about it. I would protect myself with surgical masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and lots of hand washing. I would still fly out every Monday morning and be back in time for chemo every Thursday morning. To my surprise, she agreed. As long as I didn’t get sick or miss a treatment, she would allow me to approach it my way.

Every time I walked through an airport wearing a surgical mask, I felt totally out of place. Everyone would stare at me, avoid talking to me, roll their eyes at me, etc. Looking at the state of the world today, it appears as I may have actually been a trend-setter; however, in the days before COVID-19, wearing a mask in public was certainly uncommon.

Despite the funny looks, I would board the plane, take my seat and begin to disinfect my area. One day a woman sitting next to me was becoming increasingly annoyed – huffing and puffing and making snide comments to the friend she was traveling with. I knew it was all directed at me, so I turned to her and said, “I’m so sorry, did I bump you?” That’s when the conversation got really interesting:

Me: “I’m so sorry, did I bump you?”

Passenger: “No.”

Me: “Well if I did anything to offend you, I sincerely apologize.”

Passenger: “I just have to ask – if you’re such a germaphobe, why even bother getting on a plane? If you’re that uncomfortable, stay home.”

Me: “I’m not a germaphobe, I just have a compromised immune system, so I’m wearing this mask and wiping down my area to protect myself.”

Passenger: “Ugh…what do you have? AIDS?”

Me: “Wow, that escalated quickly. No, I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer.”

Passenger: “Oh my goodness! I’m SO sorry. What is your name? I will pray for you.”

Me: “No thank you. At least what I have can be cured, perhaps I’ll pray for you.”

After that, it was a long, awkward flight from Chicago to Orlando. Looking back, I realize it was a bit of a rude response on my behalf, but I won’t pretend I’m not proud of it. It brought humor to me on that day and I’m still amused with my quick response. I truly hope she remembers the exchange, and I hope it embarrasses her that she was so quick to react in such a nasty manner. I hope she can reflect on that day and realize the importance of tolerance and compassion. I hope I was the last person she treated that way.

After that day I stopped wearing my wig and opted to travel wearing my scarf so as not to risk having that type of exchange with another person. In a way, it became a small source of empowerment for me; my Clark Kent/Superman transformation. I would board the plane looking like a cancer patient, but a quick makeup job and wig application in the rental car would transform me back into the girl who was absolutely determined to pretend she wasn’t sick.

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