Perception, Reality, and Cancer in 2020

On Thursday, June 18, my sister-in-law Gabby said to me, “I have my buzzer in the car. Let me know when you’re ready.

“Wait. What?” I thought to myself.

Gabby was going to buzz my hair at some point during the upcoming weekend, but certainly not the very night we arrived in New Jersey after a long drive.

Picture this: Joe, my husband, and four of our five kids, arriving at my in-laws’ home around dinnertime. When we pull up, some of my brothers-in-law are there with their families – including Marc and Gabby. So when she shared that her buzzer was in the car, everyone’s ears perked up.

I immediately started doing my go-to deep-breathing exercise, counting four in and four out, while asking myself, “Am I ready for my hair to come off right now, let alone before all the weekend’s events?”

My vanity showed itself for 30 minutes as I talked to myself – mainly out of anxiety and fear.

“Stop it, Jennifer,” I told myself.

The impetus for shaving came as our close friends and partners at One Mission pivoted their Buzz Off event from an annual gathering at Gillette Stadium to a virtual experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One Mission’s Buzz Off is always a fun and unforgettable experience, where passionate people come together to shave their heads in honor and support of kids with cancer. Joe has participated many times, and I had always been a supportive observer… but not this year. So much of 2020 (for everyone) has been about getting out of our comfort zones – it was time for me to embrace it.

Buzzing my hair off was not about me. It was not about making me look pretty or saying, look at what I did for cancer patients and families. Deciding to buzz my hair was because every day, there are thousands of cancer patients who wake up with no choice but to be bald; children who walk into their parents’ bedroom to say good night and see them reach for their cap or wig.

I looked at Gabby and said, “Let’s do it!” Her face lit up immediately, which calmed my nerves enough to sit on the stool where the buzzing would take place.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Jen Andruzzi (@jenandruzzi)

That night there were tears of love from family members. Joe’s parents were upset because it reminded them of when he was battling cancer, and of my nine-year-old niece, Juliana, as she has been through a lot already in her short life with chronic immune thrombocytopenia. Ultimately, everyone smiled and had a few good laughs, which is what I reflected on when putting my freshly buzzed head on my pillow that evening.

It wasn’t until I returned home and lived with a quarter inch of hair for a few weeks in the middle of a pandemic that I realized what I had truly gained by shaving my head: perspective.

It only took a few days before people in our community looked at me with concern, wondering if I was sick.

One gentleman at a Dunkin Donuts offered to carry my tray of coffees, saying, “Let me help you; it looks like you are going through a lot.” I was not fully prepared for so many to jump to the conclusion that I had cancer.

After a few of these interactions, I thought a lot about the perceptions and assumptions many of us have when observing those around us:

“Did you see that poor woman in aisle 10 with a scarf on her head? She must be going through cancer treatment.”

“Did you see the man with no hair, including eyebrows, shopping with four kids? Poor thing, he must have cancer. I wonder if he had a stem cell transplant like Greg.”

“Did you see the stunning twenty-year-old in the bra section crying? What could she be upset about? I’d pay to have those curves.”

We don’t mean to do it. It’s not uncommon to create narratives about people and things we see. It doesn’t make us bad people. But I want to encourage everyone to say over and over: Perception is not reality. Perception is NOT reality. Do whatever it takes to bring this top of mind.

Why?

Because the woman mentioned above with the scarf on her head is a breast cancer patient. She has had four surgeries, one during which she got an infection that left her flat-chested. Every weekday she picks her head up off her pillow, knowing that homeschooling (necessary for her family due to her being immunocompromised) her three children will begin in 90 minutes.

Before that, she must feed herself and her family breakfast and take her multiple medications before turning on three computers for Zoom to start. While the children are in their third Zoom class of the morning, she calls her family’s health insurance company to discuss its COBRA plan – due to the elimination of her husband’s role at his company; they no longer have coverage. She does all of these things while praying that her doctor doesn’t prescribe a new medication at tomorrow’s treatment appointment because her family only has $80 remaining in their checking account for the week’s groceries.

Since I shaved my head in June, that story (and many others) run through my head daily. The fact is, I buzzed my hair to support cancer patients and families through raising funds for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation and One Mission. And in turn, what I received was an unexpected glimpse into what a cancer patient may face in today’s world. Without a doubt, it will forever influence my personal and professional life.

As for the two other examples mentioned above, the male is a breast cancer patient. (Remember, it’s not only a female disease.) The stunning female just lost her mother to breast cancer, and she recently found out that she carries the BRCA1 gene. (Remember, perception is not reality.)

Just as my head shaving experience provided me with perspective, in many ways 2020, and the pandemic in general, has given everyone a chance to better understand the plights of cancer patients and families in normal circumstances.

“We always have to worry,” JAF’s Program Manager Shannon Gallanty recalled being told by a young cancer patient’s mother on an episode of Faces of JAF earlier this year. “We already had to (disinfect things), we already had to worry about her immune system… the way we are all being conscious of what we’re touching and who we’re interacting with… that’s something that cancer patients have been dealing with long before the pandemic started.”

So please remember to be kind to all and remember that what your eyes see does not always reveal someone else’s true journey or what they are dealing with internally. In these moments, a smile or a simple act of kindness can let a cancer patient know they are not alone.

Gabby does not know this, but I did not ask her to buzz my hair because she is a beautician by trade – I asked her because, at that time, her beloved mother was fighting the biggest battle of her life, glioblastoma I prayed that by Gabby buzzing my hair, she would somehow know that so many family, friends, and total strangers were also fighting in solidarity all around the world for cancer patients and in all different ways. She was not alone. (Love you, Gab!)

Here’s to a happier, and healthier, 2021!