Losing It

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) 

shedding mama.jpg

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.  

shortcut.jpg

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.

shiny buzzhead2.jpg

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.

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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.

turbanator1sm.jpg

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. 

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Filed under Living with Breast Cancer

0 responses to “Losing It

  1. Rochelle, Toronto,ON

    Hi Leanne,

    I was surfing through Chatelaine’s site looking for contact names to invite to our store opening and happened across your blog. At 5 AM, you tore me away from my work, and instead I was completely engrossed by all you wrote. My mom is a two time survivor of breast cancer and a totally amazing and supportive woman. Sometimes I feel that cancer amplifies the “super-womanish powers” that all women have. It amplifies our characters, our strength, and as you’ve shown our good humour. As many others have said, your blog is truly inspirational, I laughed and cried … a lot … and I’m not usually very weepy. Thank you for your stories. Breast cancer is scary and we need more people out there to demystify it for us. 

    Anyways Leanne, I will be sending you an invitation to our store opening, because I love your energy and I would be honoured to have you there. It is in support of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, a wonderful organization that I’m sure you have heard of. I hope you can make it …look out for an invite from me.

  2. Gemingirl

    Leanne,

    I remember how empowered I felt when I finally decided to stop worrying about how much hair I was losing and shaved my head. It was as if I had taken some control back into my life.

    I used to go “bare” most of the time when at home or with friends. I saved my wig for shopping etc. You’re right, we often do define ourselves by our hair. Mine was always long too. 

    Anyway, as soon as I’d come into the house I’d whip the wig off. One day I couldn’t find the thing. I thought the cat had mistaken it for a toy! As luck would have it, chemo brain had struck and the only place I didn’t look was where I finally found it.

    I kept my hair pretty short for several years after it grew back. Now I have chin length hair…I still believe shaving my head was one of the key moments in my fight against cancer. So much about the cancer experience is outside of our control, how we chose to handle our hair issues was one aspect where we could assert our own power.

    I like each of your hair looks.

    Gemini

  3. leannecoppen

    Gemini I was thinking about the shave and how it can be a major turning point. I wonder if women would be interested in posting their own photos of the buzz or even the chrome dome… What do you think? Would you post photos of your shaved head and should I offer it to other readers?? Its intensely personal, I know, but I wonder if women would feel kind of liberated posting their buzz/bald pix on this blog… Thoughts?

  4. Gemingirl

    Hi Leanne,

    The only pic I have of me minus my hair is Christmas morning in my jammies, with the patchwork fuzz head. If I can find it I will scan it and send it to you. It was on a roll of film that waited a couple of years for developing and when I saw it I wasn’t prepared. It caught me off guard.

    I found it brought back a lot of memories and I cried for the woman with the tufty, mangey head. I didn’t look as sophisticated as you look in your pics. After I cried, I felt a sense of amazement at what I had accomplished and endured AND survived. It was, in the final analysis, a good “remembering”.My email is thegirl@geminigirl.ca if you would like to email me. I’ll look for the pic.

    Gemini

  5. Kelly in Key West

    Well, my friend, even though we’ve not met I somehow know you thru both your dad & thru your blog. What a wonderful writer you are! My mom is in remission right now even though she’s currently getting round two of chemo tretment. I will share your stories with her as she adores your father as do I. Thanks for sharing yourself online. I look forward to keeping up with your successful recovery.

    Cheers,

    Kelly Friend in Key West

  6. Sandra

    Hi Leanne,

    I’ve been checking in and reading your blog and just wanted to let you know that I’m rooting for you from Vienna, Geneva or wherever we may be – Tu es dans nos pensées!

    Sandra (a.k.a cousin Sunny)

    P.S. showed the pics to Steph (hubs) and he said he thought you looked way better with short hair than when it was long. Maybe a new style to take up when it grows back, who knows?

  7. leannecoppen

    Thanks for your supportive words Rochelle –I think you’re right about cancer having that “amplifying” effect — sometimes it amplifies the good things and makes us stronger. You obviously witnessed a lot of that strength in your mom. I look forward to meeting you the store opening (hope I can make it!) as anything in support of Willow has my support!

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