03/27/2013 07:30 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

The Man Behind the Mask

Did you ever stare at a person walking past you because they look different? I know I have. Did you ever ask yourself if that person made a choice in the way they looked, or if an unfortunate circumstance came into their life causing an appearance change? Have these questions ever crossed your mind? Personally, I don't judge people by the way they look, but if I see something different or unusual, I tend to stare. I think this is true for most people. However, I don't stare anymore. For more days than I'd like to count, I was the person people stared at.

As a cancer transplant patient, I've had a suppressed immune system. Doctors tend to explain it this way; "A common cold can put you in the hospital for weeks." That's kind of scary. So for the first 100 days post transplant, it's recommended, well, more like mandated, to wear a large, obstructive, surgical mask that protects the wearer from all incoming germs. It's like the Captain America shield of masks. Apparently this "shield" can block up to 95 percent of all the incoming particles in the air.

After having been in the hospital for several weeks, I was discharged only to be quarantined to my house. After about 20 days of this, I was desperate to get out. I knew if I wanted to leave the house I had to wear that mask. Many thoughts ran through my mind before I ventured out. Are people going to stare at me? Are they going to ask me questions? Will they be able to hear me if I speak? Will I be able to stand my own breath? Every question and thought made me more nervous, reconsidering my choice to be in public.

My reconsideration lasted only a few more days because ultimately I couldn't take it any longer and I had to go outside. So, my family and I decided to go see a movie. Good choice, right? It's dark; people would only see me walking from the car to inside the movie and then out again. "You can do it," I told myself. As suspected, when I walked down the sidewalk, people glanced and stared. I looked away. I got all hot and sweaty. I wanted to return to the car, but I proceeded ahead. As I walked into the movie theater, I had to walk in front of the screen to get to the other side for seating. This had me dead center in front of an audience of viewers. Now, I'm soaking wet, as the heat from my anxiety was on fire! When I sat down, I became calmer, accepting the fact that if I wanted to go into public I had to wear this mask. Settling in, and starting to feel better about my choice, an older man craned his head around to look at me. I started to itch all over. It was as if I couldn't stand the fear and worry of not looking normal. I was embarrassed. Embarrassed?

This thought had me rethink what was happening. Society has a bad habit of putting a lot of pressure on people's looks. Whether it is what people wear, their hairstyle or hair color, body size, trendy or not, "normal" or not. My fear was that society was not going to accept a bald, pale, man with a mask. And in some ways, I think it's less about acceptance and more about how often we're told what is "normal." That had me thinking that most people stare because what they see is something unusual or uncommon. It's the uncommon things that usually catch my attention when I am out in public, causing me to stare. I don't stare at everyday or "typical" instances of babies in strollers, couples holding hands, or people walking their dogs. I imagine if everyone was wearing a mask and was bald I would have less fear of going in public.

After about 40 days of going out in public with the mask, I began to feel like I was no longer wearing the mask. I grew accustomed to being stared at, so I made sure I was wearing the 'flyest' clothes. (Just kidding). I felt "normal." Although society did not view my appearance as normal, the mask and my bald head had become my "new normal." Being stared at because I was different made me appreciate the permanent physical hard ships that some people go through. Luckily for me, I was only going to be wearing the mask for a short period of time, but for some people, their physical differences are permanent.

One man's ignorance can cause another man's discomfort. I don't want to be that man causing discomfort. I hope more people will think twice before staring. I know I will.