Every time I looked at the bald-headed woman with no eyelashes or eyebrows on my driver’s license I got mad.
And it happened whenever I had to pull out my license — at the bank, airports, stores, picking up my children from an after-school program.
I always felt like I needed to explain the photo: “You get to see my chemo photo,” I’d say.
The strangers who asked for my ID didn’t know how to respond. It made them uncomfortable.
It just made me angry.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
In the wake of the terrifying diagnosis at age 43, I had three surgeries, five months of brutal chemo and 33 zaps of radiation.
In the middle of my chemo treatment, my driver’s license needed to be renewed.
I called the state Department of Licensing office in Olympia to ask if it was possible to keep my current photo as I didn’t particularly want my bald head featured on my license for the next six years.
The unsympathetic soul at the other end of the line said I could have gotten my replacement license a year before it expired, before I lost my hair. He also told me I could do a $10 retake when my hair grew back.
When I showed up at the Department of Licensing office in Kennewick, I asked two people if I could reuse my old photo and was told no. They said I could wear my head scarf in the photo as that’s allowed for religious reasons. I cited medical reasons. They weren’t to be swayed.
By then I was so frustrated that I whipped off my head scarf for the photo.
And the bald cancer patient photo with the reluctant smile followed me around like a dark shadow for the next 20 months — until the Department of Licensing changed its policy.
When I finished my cancer treatment, I circled back with the DOL to see if there was a way to prevent other cancer patients from having a similar experience.
When I told my story to Pamela Byrd, DOL’s district manager for a large region in Eastern Washington that includes Kennewick, she was aghast.
“I definitely felt you gave a great point and honestly we should not have photographed you bald,” Byrd said.
She apologized and then got to work. She submitted a request for a statewide policy change to prevent it from happening again. It reads:
“Customers undergoing medical treatment that affects their appearance, such as hair loss, who are at the LSO (Licensing Service Office) to obtain a PLO (Photo License Only), duplicate, or renew their license may request that their previous photo in PV (Photo Verification) be used as long as they are still identifiable.”
It took more than six months to get reviewed and approved, but it’s already having an effect, Byrd said.
“We’ve used it in this district twice. It really has proven to be helpful to folks. Both of those cases, similar to yours, are where the customer had lost all their hair and asked for their previous photo to be used,” Byrd said.
Those who have faced down cancer know a small thing — like this policy change — has an important ripple effect.
“Cancer tries to rob a person of everything, including their dignity. Now our fellow warriors will no longer be forced to relive the physical battle scars every time they pull out their driver’s license,” said Misty Ovens, president of Warrior Sisterhood, a Tri-Cities Cancer Center group that threw its support behind the cause by encouraging me to stand up to the state agency.
The American Cancer Society’s Jody O’Connor, health systems manager for hospitals, and Chris Friend, manager of the society’s political action network in Seattle, also pledged to help me if needed.
It turns out all it took was the phone call to Byrd for the state to reconsider its policy.
Byrd waived my $10 photo retake fee and snapped the photo herself when I went to get my replacement photo this month.
“You, my dear, fostered change,” Byrd told me when she called to tell me about the proposed policy change.
The state is lucky to have such a caring public servant in Byrd, who’s worked for the state for 36 years, 20 of them at DOL.
My new driver’s license now features a genuine smile and looks like me.
Daily and Monthly NewsSign up now!