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Breast Cancer Patient Hassled For Wearing Mask

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Published on June 16, 2020

Cancer patients know they need to wear masks to protect themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, however, not everyone understands the significance, and some even choose to make negative or hurtful comments.
 
That's what happened to breast cancer survivor Greta Beekhuis of Sacramento, California. She wore a mask when she went to pick up her medicine from a major retailer and was hassled by protestors in the parking lot. In this segment from our recent Answers Now program, Greta talks to host Esther Schorr about what happened and what she wishes she would have done differently.
 
This is the first part of a three-part series. Watch Part 2 at Lung Cancer Patient Criticized For Not Wearing Mask and Part 3 at Masks Are a Health Issue, Not a Political One of this program.

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Transcript | Breast Cancer Patient Hassled For Wearing Mask

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Esther Schorr:

Greetings I'm Esther Schorr with Patient Power and welcome to our Answers Now program. These programs focus on current issues for cancer patients, and today we're talking about masks. Not what kind of mask to wear - we'll have another program about that in a couple of weeks - but our focus today is on what to say if others ask or even object to why you're wearing a mask during this coronavirus pandemic.

While there's not complete clarity about all the details of the coronavirus, what is very clear is that this pandemic is not over. The most recent statistics tell us that over 2 million people are confirmed with the virus in the US. There have been over 115,000 deaths from this virus in the United States. And some states are going up in their number of cases, in other cases it’s going down. The predictions are for another 100,000 deaths by this fall.

The very basic guidance that has been unwavering from the start from medical experts, infectious disease specialists are this; keep your distance, which is “social distancing” six feet or more apart, wear a mask when you're likely to come in close proximity to other people that are not part of your nuclear household, and certainly indoors, and in some cases outdoors when it’s not possible to stay distanced, wash your hands carefully – for at least 20 seconds and do it often. And if you're immune compromised, you need to be even more vigilant.

I'm joined today by breast cancer survivor Greta Beekhuis from Sacramento, California. Hi Greta. Good to see you. We're also joined with lung cancer patient advocate, Gina Hollenbeck from Tennessee. There you are. Hi Gina. Also, with us is Harold Dean, a social work program manager at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Myeloma Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Thank you all for joining me. And we always tell Harold, love that bow tie. He's ready to go. Let's start the conversation with you Greta. You've really been sheltering in place during this whole time, and you haven't really left your house from what I understand, but a few weeks ago you ventured out to get your medicine I understand at a major retailer and you were wearing a mask, right? So I'd love you to share what happened.

Greta Beekhuis:

I had been sheltering in place for five weeks. I had been communicating with former colleagues who are in health care and they were all talking about sewing masks and wearing masks. And all the pictures that I saw were of people wearing masks and social distancing. And I thought, "Okay, it's time to get out in the big wide world and do my essential errand. I was out of a medication I need to take. And so I thought that the safest way to do that would be to call the order in and have it for pickup. My understanding was that I would drive up to the store and pick up my order.

When I got to the store, the pickup was inside the store. So I had to get out of my car and walk across the parking lot. And I was still feeling fine about wearing a mask and wearing gloves. And then I noticed that there were large pickup trucks circling the parking lot, waving American flags and yelling, "No one's going to keep us inside. This is America." And I thought, "Oh, I wonder what that's about," and I kept walking toward the store. And then a group of young women approached me and actually got right up in my face and started yelling at me, "Why are you wearing a mask? Are you afraid? You should get your groceries from China." And then another one said, "It's a hoax. Why are you wearing a mask?"            

While I consider myself a pretty good communicator, I could not think of a single thing to say. I just wanted to get at least six feet away from them and continue on to the store, which I did. But I was shaking at that point. I thought, "What is going on?"

Esther Schorr:

How did that make you feel?

Greta Beekhuis:

Oh, I was terrified because my experience with wearing a mask, when I go to my oncologist, when I go for treatment, when I go to the hospital, I wear it as a sign of respect. There are other people who are at least as, or in some cases, far more compromised than I am, and I see it as a sign of respect. And so I thought, "How can my wearing a mask ... Why are these people so upset with me?" So I went in and I got my order and there were actually, I hate to use this word, but there were gangs of young people going through the store in groups, not social distancing, yelling at people wearing masks.

Esther Schorr:

Did you say anything to them?

Greta Beekhuis:

I didn't. I literally wanted to just disappear at that point and make myself invisible. I showed the barcode to the young person working behind the plexiglass and he looked absolutely terrified. He had a mask on, but you could tell that he was just really unnerved by what was going on. He handed me my bag. I walked extremely quickly out to my car, got in my car and locked the doors. I sat there and shook for a little bit because I thought I'm going to a regular store in my neighborhood to pick up medicine, I thought it was going to be safer than going to the hospital.

I got home and I was still shaking. I couldn't really rationalize this for myself. And low and behold up pops my email and the major retailer said, "How did we do today? How was your experience in our store?" That gave me an opportunity to vent, which I did, and within a week they had changed their policy. You no longer have to go into the store. You can drive up and you text them that you're there, they come out to your car. I'm very grateful for that. But at the time I just thought, "What am I doing wrong that I'm making people angry by wearing a mask?" I don't generally go out in public and say, "I'm a cancer survivor. I don't want to be near" ... I just don't do that. So I wondered is that a conversation I need to start having now.

Esther Schorr:

Why do you think you were hassled? What do you think was behind these people confronting you that way? I'm just curious. Did you have some sense of where they were coming from?

Greta Beekhuis:

Well, I think in our neighborhood everybody had been inside for four weeks and there was a lot of pent up anxiety I believe. We have no idea what the susceptibility of folks are to this virus. We know very little about the virus. Now, in addition to staying home, we're being told for them ... I'm sure most of these folks have never worn a mask or nitrile gloves, or know how to de-glove properly. This isn't something they do. It's something I've been doing for years. So for me, it was like, "Oh okay, I'm masking up, I'm gloving up, out I go." But maybe it triggers a fear in them that not only are we not going to return to normal and our regular way of life is not coming back, but I'm going to have to look like that. That was my, later in the afternoon when I was a little calmer, that's what I came up with.

Esther Schorr:

And that intuitively makes sense. I'm just curious now that you've got some distance from that experience, if it happened to you again and hopefully it never does, but if it ever happened to you again would you say something different? Would you react differently? What would you have done?

Greta Beekhuis:

I would. I would. I would have said as clearly as I could, "I'm wearing a mask out of respect for you. This is to protect you. If I were trying to protect myself, I'd be wearing a N95 mask, which I have in the car. I could go get that. But I'm trying to protect you. This is a sign of respect. This is reducing the transmission in this neighborhood so that maybe we can all go back to, not what it was before, but back to a new normal where we're not living under the threat of this very virulent, fatal disease."

Esther Schorr:

Yeah. Do you think you'll go out again? Now that you had the time to digest what you would do, are you feeling like you'll be able to go out again?

Greta Beekhuis:

No. Actually, I am following a number of my colleagues who are working on vaccines and who are working on treatments and I'm exploring options to have almost everything delivered to my home. We are dependent on our fellow human beings to show respect. And as the weeks go on, I see fewer and fewer people wearing masks. I see fewer and fewer people distancing. My neighbors are having parties in their backyards. So no, I have no plans to resume my normal shopping experience.

Esther Schorr:

Well, thank you for sharing that. We'll loop back. We have a discussion with all of us. You sharing this story makes me so sad because if I wear a mask, it doesn't really impact other people's freedoms at all from what I can tell. I mean, when I go out and I see someone not wearing a mask, it makes me personally angry because I'm wearing a mask to protect everybody else just as you said. It's really just a minor barrier to protecting ourselves. It's maybe a little bit of protection.

So, it makes me sad and a little bit angry at the same time. It's hard to know what to say and when to say it. You had a couple of ideas. I'm going to go on to our other guests now and see what insights they may have.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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