Back when I was told that I would have chemo, the idea of losing my hair terrified me. Not constant nausea or exhaustion or even premature menopause – baldness was the most daunting of all the side effects.
Apparently a lot of women feel this way. Hair can be a primary part of our self-image. It can communicate things about our identity (“Professional,” “Soccer Mom,” “Vixen,” “Hockey Fan”); it can complement our outfits or reflect our moods; it can even be a kind of camouflage.
For me, there was the notion that once I lost my hair, my cancer would become public knowledge. Bald head = cancer. It was a symbolic of loss of control, and I dreaded it deeply.
As it turned out the process of losing it was harder than the loss of it. It went from long to gone in a relatively short time, and with it finally gone, there was some genuine relief. Herewith, the illustrated play-by-play:
1. I had long hair. It was July and normally my hair falls out like crazy in the summer anyway, but this time my shedding surpassed that of the average golden retriever. And it was changing in texture, becoming a frizzy, tangled mess. (That’s me on the left, obviously)
2. One evening a friend came over to chop it down to size. It was a gorgeous evening, and my husband opened a nice bottle of wine for liquid courage while we sat out on the back deck. Glasses were emptied, the deck was strewn with hair, the sun set — and in the end I really liked this cute, super-short haircut that I would only have for a few days.
3. But oh, the infernal itching… the coming out in clumps. It was driving me mad. Just days after my short haircut, friends and their clippers were enlisted to give me a buzz cut. They draped me in a sheet in their kitchen and I was transformed again, more radically this time. I actually found it liberating – it wasn’t a look that had fallen into my lexicon of “sexy” but I took it as a big compliment later in the week when a gay woman I know warned me to stay away from lesbian bars if I didn’t want to attract unwanted attention.
4. Even buzzed, the shedding continued at an alarming rate. I carried a lint roller around with me and kept one by the bed for my pillows. Adding injury to insult, the roots hurt a little as the hair came out. I knew it had to go completely. A brave friend offered a head massage to get rid of the remaining hair.
This was the final step between looking like someone who has perhaps chosen a radically short haircut, and someone who is bald because she has cancer. When I showered the last of the hair away, there was nothing left but blond fuzz and a bizarre tan line where my part used to be. I will never forget looking in the mirror that first time. No more denying it: I was bald, because of cancer.
5. These days I wear scarves a lot and sometimes go al fresco, depending on who’s around. I really like turbans – I call myself The Turbanator.
Our daughter doesn’t seem to care about my new look, probably because we had repeatedly told her I was going to cut all my hair off “to look like Grandpa”, and to a two year old there’s nothing weird about that. As for the rest of the world, I’ve learned that most of the time I don’t care if strangers realize that I’m bald because of cancer under my scarves. I do have cancer. That’s just the reality.
When it grows back I wonder if I’ll treasure my hair more or take it less seriously than I did before? (If nothing else, cancer can do wonders for vanity.) Either way, there are worse things than having cancer strip you of your hair, scarier demons to face with this illness. It’s not that cancer isn’t terrifying, but that baldness doesn’t have to be.