I was a bald Kindergartner.

After weeks of complaining of stomach pains and intermittent vomiting, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 3. During the time leading up to my very first day of school, I had endured many rounds of chemotherapy and even some radiation treatments. I had dealt with things other six-year-olds couldn’t yet comprehend. Having no hair resulted in bullying that impacted me more than any of the harmful chemicals associated with my treatment.

“Amanda is a special girl.”

The introduction and explanation that followed from my Kindergarten teacher, Miss Becky, did nothing more than cement my eccentricity. I was tiny. Not that little kids are generally big, but by normal healthy weight and height standards, I was a freak: bony, pale, and fragile. Who would want to play with a kid that looked like they could be shattered into a million pieces? However, my bald head that messed with the kids more than my fragility. It made them view me as being contagious. Labeling me as “special” only made me something to be mocked.

All I wanted to do was hide the fact that I was bald. I can’t remember the actual purchase of it, but I wore this hideous hat. It was meant to hide effects of my malady, rather, it painted a target on my covered, bald head. If you’ve ever channel surfed in your life then you have encountered a rerun of Gilligan’s Island and by proxy have seen what I had to endure. This hat looked damn near identical to Gilligan’s except mine had this string-like pink bow adorned on the side. It was the only thing that made it acceptable for a girl to wear.

I couldn’t help it, I clung to that hat like it was a security blanket. The kids still talked. They knew. But, as long as I was wearing that hat I felt like I was, at least, attempting to blend in and for a time I thought I did. Maybe it felt that way because I alternated between actually attending school and being home-schooled. My white blood cell count was constantly low. During two separate hospital stays I contracted pneumonia, so my immune system was constantly a concern. I couldn’t play outside with my cousins that lived next door, let alone be in school on a regular basis.

I can’t remember many specific things said to me by other kids during this time. I was laughed at. A lot. The girly Gilligan hat was stolen in games of keep away. I was too weak to chase after the hat and this only added to the cruel thrill for my peers. I often attempted to opt out of recess altogether. Sometimes my teacher and the other school officials were sympathetic and would allow me to stay in the trailer that doubled as out class and color. Most of the time, however, they felt it would be good for me to get the exercise I barely had the wind for.

I dreaded nap time also. Sleep rarely came and forcing rambunctious children to attempt to stay still only made me aware of the existence of cliques’ decades before my awkward high school years. They may have lacked the well-defined lines that adolescents normally attribute to popularity, but the divisions were clearly set. You wouldn’t think girls at that age had the potential to be catty, but I was often the topic of discussion in regards to who was ugly in our class. Boys were dared to nap next to me as if it were something hideous to endure.

One girl and her acts of bullying stand out the most. Not to be confused with my teacher, but her name was also Becky. She actually hurt me physically. She would give me Indian burns. Sometimes she would bend my arm back at such an angle behind my back, making it feel like it could snap in two at any second. This girl was quite poor and was picked on herself. Looking back now I’m sure it was her way of coping with the bullying she herself endured.

One of my few allies at school was a cousin of mine named Stevie. We were only 3 months apart in age. He was constantly in trouble for fights. One of these fights was for me. Becky was being overly aggressive this one afternoon on the playground. She started pushing me around when Stevie came out of nowhere and began hitting her. He was suspended for this and Becky never bothered me again. I hate that I never took the time to thank him for what he did. He’s in prison now and we haven’t talked in years.

My mom didn’t make things easy on me. Since my dad worked long shifts at the coal mines, it fell on her to stay at the hospital with me during my treatments. The process of chemotherapy has changed a great deal since I went into remission in the late 1980s. The amount of treatment I was regularly given involved a week long hospital stay every month. Now this can be accomplished in a two to three hour weekly outpatient visit. I often felt like a nuisance to her and at times she did verbally direct her frustrations towards me. She was unusually quick to anger and her constant use of profanity frightened me.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned about the toll my illness and even my birth itself, took a toll on my parents’ relationship. Dad was in belief for a while that I wasn’t his child and he had only resolved his issues with this just months prior to my diagnosis. Mom and I have only developed a strong relationship recently. It took some time for me to get over feeling like I was unwanted.

It bothered my dad that he couldn’t be around much. He was the sole provider for our family and his work provided health insurance made my treatment possible. He offered what encouragement he could. Most of the time it felt too cryptic for my young mind to comprehend.

“That hat and the cancer got nothing to do with who you really are,” he’d say.

Dad’s other means of comforting me came through gifts. He bought me books, stuffed animals, and other toys. Many called it spoiling, however the doctors and nurses did the same. Dr. Patel, my pediatrician and the one responsible for my cancer diagnosis, often bought me gifts as well. After every hospital visit I’d return home with more stuff than I checked in with. I remember in particular one nurse, Debbie, who enabled my love of Donald Duck. Thanks to her I had stuffed versions of him, coloring books, video tapes, you name it.

Debbie became a staple in our family. I was invited over to her house to play with the younger children in her family. The young children in her church made me homemade get-well cards. When my stomach could handle it, she’d bring me ice cream and other treats. Many of the other nurses and staff exhibited similar acts of kindness. There was still that feeling that I was a bit of an oddity. What child develops ovarian cancer?

Even though the medical attention often came with pain and discomfort, I felt more comfortable in the hospital halls than in the classroom. No one judged my condition or that stupid hat. I often found myself using hospital lingo among my fellow kindergartners. Obviously kids could understand shots, but when you mention CBC tests and intravenous fluids (I often said that over IV just to sound smart) it’d garner strange looks. I couldn’t relate to kids my own age. Still, the adults in my life were insistent on my blending in, so I held a lot of my emotions inside. Miss Becky was obligated to inform my family about the physical bullying, but the emotional abuse hurt the most. I’m pretty sure at that age I couldn’t even begin to articulate to others just how damaging it was.

I went into remission shortly before summer vacation started. My week long stays in the hospital transitioned into monthly clinic visits with blood work that often left me weak. It took me fainting twice before anyone realized it was a good idea to have some cookies and juice ready after drawing the obligatory six vials of blood needed for all of the checkup tests. Yearly we were required to make trips to the University of Virginia campus at Charlottesville for extensive testing. I was at their children’s hospital usually from about 9 a.m. until well in the evening and the visits usually consisted of the works: blood work, x-rays, even my first pelvic exam (want to say I was around 9 years old at the time this occurred). Aside from it being physically exhausting, these trips had a mental strain as the doctors and nurses were just so fascinated with the way I talked. Now I know they were making fun of my accent.

My parents often made shopping trips out of town due to the lack of choices in our rural area. It was during one of these trips to a neighboring strip mall that I lost the hat. There was a Regis salon adjacent to the K-Mart where we often bought groceries and other household items. My hair had been growing underneath my security blanket of a hat and I honestly was unaware of just how long it had got. The hairdresser was really nice to me as she pampered me and trimmed my hair. The haircut I received wasn’t anything special. It looked like a typical bowl cut you’d see on most little boys. I imagine it was all that could have been done or my mom requested that type of cut, either way, I was rid of the hat.

My dad threw the hat away just outside of K-Mart before we left for home. There was no pomp and circumstance to it. No special acknowledgement. There wasn’t even any mention of how things would be different at school. I think it’s because we all realized it wouldn’t change much. When I returned to school no one made mention of the missing hat. The stigma of my chemo and the hat followed me throughout my school years. I was smart. Boys in school didn’t want to date the smart girls, just cheat off of them in class. Some even felt the need to remind me that I was still ugly to them.

I ended up switching schools my junior year of high school. I said it was the anxiety of being an outcast, but the truth is I wanted a fresh start. I was dating my now ex-husband and I just felt that I fit in with his group of friends. Thanks to social media I re-connected with some of the people from my former school. I don’t know if it’s time or guilt but some people have different memories regarding our childhood. They remember friendships and fun times that never existed. Some were never even aware that I had transferred schools. I even recall running into a mother of a boy who picked on me that seem to share similar memories.

These encounters honestly make me uncomfortable even today. It doesn’t help that my family likes to discuss when I was sick. A cousin of mine often likes to remind me that she’s taught her daughters strength and kindness through my story (and how I remind her of Matilda). I usually smile politely as it reminds me of the fact that her daughters have maybe spoken to me four or five times since they were born and are both now in high school. I usually treat the friends and mothers with conflicting memories the same way. What kind of person would I be if I reminded them of a past they were already disconnected from?

Many times in cancer survivor stories there’s talk of strength and fighting. While it’s true that I believe I am, I have also seen what the disease can do. My own father passed away from it. As did a few of my aunts. It took my current husband’s mom from us before she could become my mother-in-law. Just recently two of my mom’s brothers were diagnosed. Cancer unfortunately touches everyone.

Perhaps it was the fact I spent most of my school years being ostracized that lead me to finding solace in my education. I read. A lot. When my relatives weren’t talking about my cancers, I was brought out as entertainment because I knew all of the state capitals in the first grade. Dr. Patel was convinced that I was going to be a pediatrician. As I entered my teens I took great enjoyment out of doing things just to freak people out and be considered weird. Now, an adult, I find I have the patience of a saint and empathy. I have dealt with irate customers throwing food at me to children raised with the same level of disrespect I was given at their very same age.

Out of everyone that has been a part of my life, I am perhaps the only one that does not dwell in the past. I have to see it every day. On my stomach I still have a very visible scar from when my left ovary was removed. I have a scar on my wrist from multiple IV sticks in the exact same spot that I have since covered with a tattoo. When I see pictures of the kids my classmates have since had online, I sometimes wonder if they are like my cousin and talk about me. I used to hate what I had dealt with and hated them for the damage caused. While he tried, my dad was wrong with his comment about the hat and cancer not being a part of who I am. There’s scars that still remain from both. And truth be, my time wearing that stupid hat and the scars of my sickness have helped shape me into quite an awesome person.

Amanda Sawyers is a recent graduate of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Creative Writing. She lives with her husband and dog and cat. She is currently taking a break before returning to East Tennessee State for her Masters in early 2017.

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