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What does a cancer patient look like?

Posted on: Thursday, 16th February 2017 by Julia Tugwell

One of the first things I remember my Macmillan nurse saying to me after my diagnosis of cervical cancer was, 'It will be hard because you won’t look ill. You won’t look like everyone’s idea of a cancer patient; bald, thin, sick bowl in hand.’ Initially I didn't really understand why it would be difficult NOT to be bald, or thin, or sick. 

That appearance is the characature of the cancer patient. Google, ‘What does a cancer patient look like?' and you will see image after image of bald women. It would appear that hair loss is the defining element of a cancer patient. It is undoubtedly the most recognisable. It is an image that Jo's has chosen to be part of their latest campaign to increase screening uptake. The image is indeed powerful but I want people to know that this is not always the face of cervical cancer. 

Cancer is not one beast. It’s over 200 creatures who each require different treatment, different medicines with different side effects. It is rare for a cervical cancer patient to lose their hair. Surgery is often used with no need for radiotherapy or chemo and if chemo is needed the chemo drug most commonly used to treat cervical cancer does not cause hair loss. Just as cancer has many varieties so does chemo. 

Cervical cancer hits you on the inside. And it hits hard. Loss of fertility, continence, sexual functioning. All very common side effects of treatment. Not spoken about, not seen, but there, affecting your life permanently. I'm sure many outside of the cervical cancer community are unaware of these side effects.  Because none of these are on the outside it’s very easy for people to say, think and believe, ‘You look so well.' It is both a blessing and a curse to appear outwardly that there is nothing wrong with you. A blessing that you can go about your life looking 'normal' but a curse that people think everything is 'normal' and you can't possibly be THAT ill because you've still got your hair. In the three years I've been a regular visitor in a gynae cancer waiting room I've only seen one lady who fitted the stereotype. 

So what does a cervical cancer patient look like? You won't know who they are. You won't know they have scars, are infertile, can't have sex, are incontinent or live in fear of recurrence. You can't see any of that. They look just like you or me. Maybe if the devastating side effects of cervical cancer were outwardly visible it would be taken as seriously as breast cancer. A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time as my diagnosis. She had a mastectomy and lost her hair. Later she said to me, 'my effects are all external, yours are all internal.' Cancer is never a competition but the perception was that she was far more ill than me despite having an earlier stage of cancer and a better prognosis. 

I hope the image used for the poster achieves its aim of catching young women's attention. I hope it's power encourages women to book their appointment. I hope that women don't think that hair loss is the worst that can happen if they don't go for their screening. 

Because I can assure them it's not. 




Categories: cervical cancer