DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a 58-year-old woman who looks much younger than I am, slim and fit thanks to decades of working out. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a cluster of autoimmune disorders, among them alopecia. Within 18 months, I lost all my hair.
I wasn’t going to let that stop me from going to the gym. After my workout, I typically wrap my head in a towel when in transit to and from the shower. After I dress, I remove it and put on my wig, in full view of whoever is in the area.
Most of the women in the locker room have supported me through my hair loss. However, every few months I have an encounter like this recent one: A woman in her mid-40s, whom I had never seen before, asked me if I was in treatment. (I had just gotten out of the shower and was only wearing a towel, which is an odd moment to start a conversation.) I told her I was in treatment, but I didn’t have cancer. This was followed by a barrage of questions: “What do you have? How long have you had it? Will your hair grow back? Is it grave?” She even asked me if I lost my pubic hair.
Then she launched into a monologue about her breast cancer, her mastectomy, chemo, and her own hair loss and regrowth. I tried several times to politely end the conversation and get dressed, but she was relentless.
This is the sixth or seventh time this has happened to me. It is always cancer survivors who are looking to bond. While I appreciate what survivors went through, I find it upsetting to be expected to participate in an impromptu support group.
I am a very private person. I don’t participate in alopecia groups, let alone support groups for a disease I don’t have.
Autoimmune issues can be exacerbated by stress, and I find these encounters extremely stressful and intrusive. I would never approach anyone about their medical issues. I am at a loss as to how to prevent this from happening, or at least to quickly terminate these conversations. Hasn’t anyone heard of HIPAA?
GENTLE READER: Your reference to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act caught Miss Manners’ attention -- not because she pretends to be a lawyer, but because it reminds her of the current swirl of contradictions around privacy.
Consumers are rightly concerned about companies using data about them captured online, while simultaneously inundating social media sites with confessions that used to be considered private. HIPAA demands confidentiality of persons who handle medical information in their professional capacities, not private individuals seeking emotional support for their medical conditions.
Your shower inquisitor may have remembered her doctor’s advice that social support can help in managing serious illness, and therefore mistakenly felt deputized in imposing on you an unasked-for, and unwelcome, shower support group.
The solution, when your polite attempts to end the conversation have failed, is a firm “Excuse me, I have no experience with cancer.”
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)