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Hassled For Wearing a Mask: If Cancer Wasn’t Hard Enough

Hassled For Wearing a Mask: If Cancer Wasn’t Hard Enough
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Published on July 24, 2020

Hassled For Wearing a Mask: If Cancer Wasn’t Hard Enough

An Essential Run for Medicine Turns Political

It was the last Wednesday in April, and I had been in the house for five weeks after being laid off following the California stay-at-home order. As a breast cancer survivor, I was unsure of my susceptibility to the novel coronavirus and felt that it was prudent to shelter in place.

I had run out of vitamin D, an important part of my nutritional protocol, so I went online to a neighborhood retailer and ordered it for curbside pickup. I rationalized that it would be safer to go to the store rather than to the hospital pharmacy where there might be more infected people and a greater risk for transmission of the virus.

Later that afternoon, I received an alert on my phone notifying me that the order was ready. As I donned my mask and gloves and headed out to pick up my order, I realized I was actually looking forward to being out on an essential errand. What was it like out there in the big wide world these days?

Hassled by An Anti-Mask Group

Since most of my friends and former colleagues were chatting online and over the phone about the importance of masks, and many of them were even sewing masks to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in their local healthcare settings, I was unprepared for the reaction I encountered when I stepped out of my car.

There were large pickup trucks with American flags flying from the antennae and the tailgates, driving slowly around the parking lot with people yelling from the windows about the government not telling THEM what to do, “this is ‘merica!”

A group of young people came toward me, not wearing face masks and not social distancing. They started to yell at me. “Go get your groceries from China!” “It’s a hoax!” One of the girls, who appeared to be about college age, got right in my face and demanded loudly, “Are you AFRAID? Is that why you are wearing a MASK?” I stepped away from her, trying to judge how far six feet was, and walked quickly to the store to get my order.

Once again, I was shocked. Most of the patrons in the store were not masked, and there was certainly not much compliance with the circles painted on the floor to indicate a safe distance to queue up. What was going on? 

The young employee — who was masked and standing behind a plexiglass partition — scanned my order barcode, and quickly got my order. He looked terrified.

I ran out to my car, jumped in, and locked the doors. I was shaking. The pickup trucks were still circling, like sharks looking for prey. I looked in my rearview mirror as I exited the parking lot and drove home, thinking of all of the things I should have said, but hadn’t.

Processing My Experience

Once I was safely back at home, I wiped down the shopping bag handles and the vitamin bottle with bleach wipes. I hung my mask out in the full sun on the clothesline. I degloved as per the protocol I used to follow as a healthcare worker. And I washed my hands with soap, singing two rounds of the happy birthday song under my breath.

Part of me wanted to stay in the house and not go out again until there is a vaccine, and a therapeutic and a cure for the novel coronavirus. I realized that the people who were unwilling to wear a mask or social distance were probably also unwilling to get a vaccine. Perhaps I was going to be inside for a long, long time.

The irrational part of my brain made plans to move somewhere far, far away. I had not gone through surgery and chemo and radiation and all of the pain and grief of breast cancer to have my health put at risk by anti-science protesters. The experience sent me through the stages of grief all over again.

As I began to calm down, I tried to figure out a more rational response to my experience. As luck would have it, the store sent me a “how was your experience with us today?” questionnaire, so I filled it out and let them know what had happened.

The reply was formulaic, which I certainly understood. The store was an essential business, they had tried to follow the recommended guidelines for operating safely, and yet their customers could not be forced to comply, especially not in the parking lot. They said they were sorry for my experience and reminded me that I could order online and have next-day delivery.

I texted a good friend about my experience and she said I should have called the police. I thanked her for her sympathy but reminded her about the freedom of speech we often wrote about as colleagues.

I went online to look for guidance about what other cancer patients and survivors might be doing in similar situations. That led me to the Patient Power website and a conversation about how to communicate the need for wearing a mask, hand washing, and social distancing as a sign of respect for everyone, and as a way to eliminate the spread of the virus.

As a rule, I do not introduce myself as a cancer survivor, or even bring it up in conversation with people I engage with personally or professionally. Does this virus change that conversation? I welcome the discussion going forward and hope that we can find some guidance, together.

For more of Greta’s story, watch Breast Cancer Patient Hassled for Wearing Mask.

~Greta Beekhuis

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