“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them …” – Virginia Woolf
Although I do not pay much attention to how they are dressed, I realize that some patients have spent time struggling to decide what to wear to each clinic visit.
Some patients arrive wearing jeweled cufflinks and handsomely tailored Italian silk suits. Some wear handcuffs with their orange County Jail one-piece jumpsuits. I have seen everything in between.
Clothing choices often reflect the individual’s vocation, activities or passions. I have seen paint-splattered pants, work shirts with name badges, embroidered sweatshirts emblazoned with “World’s Greatest Grandma,” Harley-Davidson coordinated leathers, exercise outfits, steel-toed work boots, motor oil-impregnated shirt sleeves, carpenter’s suspenders, and lanyards with corporate ID badges.
Among my cancer patients, some women wear “guardian angel” pins. Survivors, both men and women, wear “Livestrong” bracelets. Some cancer survivors wear ribbons. These people are truly set apart.
Several years ago, a young woman came to my office for the first time with an untreated tongue cancer. We discussed the evaluation and management, settling on a surgery date. She was wearing a brand new T-shirt, the fabric still creased and the printing fresh; I realized later that it might have been the only clean thing she owned. There, sitting in front of me, was a young woman preparing for cancer treatment, wearing a shirt that read in large, glaring orange letters: “Newport. Alive with pleasure!”
What was my patient thinking when she chose to wear that shirt? Whenever I happen to spend a minute or two selecting my clothes, I suspect I want others to surmise that I am a little cleaner, a tad better pressed, and a bit more organized than I actually am. Maybe she went through that thought process, as well.
Initially, I didn't think she noticed the irony of appearing in a cancer surgeon’s office dressed in a shirt she obtained by sending in coupons from cigarette packs; however, she never wore it again.
____A previous version of this essay appeared in the MCW Cancer Center News.
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