Breast cancer blog: using the cancer card

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 August, 2013, 2:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:13pm

I pulled out the cancer card the other day without hesitation. It was one of those sticky situations where I needed to move the date of an airline ticket.

Of course, this being high peak season, it was the sort of dirty work that most travel agents don’t want to tackle. So I went straight to the ticketing counter with my health records and told them a story, my story. The violet-coloured, tattoo-like lines are still visible on the top of my chest in the area just below my neck, and I am a girl with an extensive record – my health records are as heavy as a textbook.

Why the date change? I feel the need to stay just a bit longer. There is an exhaustion that lingers perhaps from the treatment and there is also a fear of moving. The radiation round is over, but the side effects continue to lurk – the prickly sensation of a sunburn in the affected area, or a shot of intense fatigue, and occasionally a fear that the beast would suddenly resurface. Maybe I just need a break before fully moving forward.

After the last radiation, I wanted to delete the memory of disease and treatment like burning letters from an ex-boyfriend or at least placing the experience in the darkest corners of memory and hoping it would be forgotten. But then inevitably a situation in everyday life – ticket changes, buying insurance and having to share a pre-existing condition – arises and the disease can’t be totally forgotten.

There is also a bit of guilt in taking out the cancer card. I am that person who never took a sick day or sick leave, I think as I walk into the airline ticketing counter with health records in tow. The agent is very nice as I tell her my story, how the doctor suggested that I stay just a bit longer to recover. I show her the records along with the diagnosis from the breast surgeon, but she doesn’t even glance at them. She’s as calm and cool as a cucumber and doesn’t flinch.

She’s all business and I’m not surprised. How would I respond if a total stranger told me that she had breast cancer, and that she would appreciate my help?

“It’s tight, it’s all pretty full,” she explains. “But I’ll see what I can do.” She moves to another agent and they commiserate, and have an entire whispered conversation in Cantonese for what feels like forever. They scan through the computer of what I assume is a seating plan to find a solution.

In the meantime, my mind wanders and I have plenty of time to ask myself questions. Why did I share my medical history and records with a total stranger? The idea first surfaced when a friend had told me that airlines accept compassionate reasons for changing tickets, including say a death in the family, or a sudden illness. Besides, cancer carries weight, the friend said. I struggled with whether to do this or not, to share something very personal in exchange for a perk.

I’m not the only one who has used the cancer card, I thought. A fellow breast cancer survivor did the same and shared her diagnosis with her travel agent to change dates without being charged. Her husband was exasperated when she told him, asking why anyone would share such personal information with strangers. Why did you do it, he asked.

Why did I share my medical history with a total stranger?

I know why she did it. Cancer is a free pass in some ways; after the tribulations of treatment one occasionally feels a slight sense of entitlement, but it is certainly not the sort of pass one wants to use too often.

In summary, the ticket is important. Travelling when I want is important too as it gives me a bit of the feeling of control when in fact disease has taught me that so much is out of my control. I am entitled to sharing my story, I think. I shouldn’t be ashamed, I reason with myself.

The agent turns back to me and tells me that they were able to help. She prints out a new reservation, I never mention the words breast cancer again and simply say thank you.