If you were to do a free association test with the word cancer, likely one of the first things that would come up is being bald. Naturally, one of the first things I wondered about when I was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma was whether or not I would have to loose my hair. My long hair has always been a big deal to me. With the exception of the mushroom cut disaster of ‘93 my hair has been at or below my shoulders since it first made its way there, which my family can tell you took a rather long time! Despite the gravity of my diagnosis and the comparative frivolity of a thing like hair it really did bother me when I learned that I would have to go through a chemotherapy that would cause me to lose my hair.
One of my most vivid memories from the early weeks after my diagnosis is from a moment when I was leaving the office after an appointment with my surgeon. There was a girl waiting for her ride at the top of the stairwell. She was standing alone in the hallway and was dressed in jeans and a normal shirt and was otherwise completely put together but there was her head… almost completely bald. No scarf, no wig, just a thin layer of fuzz on the top. She turned to us and smiled with confidence. Direct eye contact: bald head! It’s all I could see. I remember being slightly shocked that not only was she baring her fuzz-head in public but she appeared to be completely okay with it. She didn’t appear self-conscious at all. It made me feel so strongly that I was heading into a world that I had completely held foreign to myself and that I was completely unprepared for. I did not want to be that girl. I did not want to be bald.
When I started biochemotherapy at MD Anderson just a few weeks later I knew the hair loss was unavoidable. I didn’t know much about when or how, and Google searches didn’t help a great deal with those questions, but I did read that it can be easier with shorter hair so I got my second-ever above shoulder haircut the week I returned for my second round of treatment. Sure enough, the week I was there for my second round, strands started coming out every time I ran my fingers through my hair. It was kind of slow at first but it continued. Every time I washed my hair or brushed it or just grabbed it to put it up, more and more slid out. It’s like each strand was just waiting to be touched, to be given the sign that it was chosen to let go. First my part started widening, then the volume started flattening. My hair got on EVERYTHING!
For a time I went through a phase that I affectionately call my Benjamin Franklin phase. It’s just as attractive as it sounds! The hair on the top was nearly completely gone but I still had enough around the sides to give me some hair sticking out of a cap so I just went with it. The most surprising thing to me during this phase was that I felt such a draft on my head at night! I could actually feel the air unit kick on, so I slept in a little cap.
And WIGS! I did go wig shopping, before I even started the biochemotherapy. One time I walked into the wig shop and joked that I needed something for the (almost entirely bald) one-year-old that I had with me. She didn’t laugh. I bought one, but it didn’t really feel like me. They had convinced me it needed to be above the shoulders so it didn’t fray or get worn so the cut felt off. Then I bought another one. It was the full hair I never had before and I was excited to enjoy the hair I’d always wanted. But again, it just didn’t feel like me! I didn’t wear the wigs much. Once my hair was almost completely gone I cut the remaining strands very short and started wearing scarves. I must say this was the easiest and most comfortable choice!
When my hair started to grow back it was pretty uneven so I went into a hair salon and asked someone to even things up. She was terribly sweet and chatted about all the short hairstyles I would get to try as she trimmed the 20 or so hairs on my head that were sticking out every which way. I felt a lot better after that and she didn’t charge me for the trim …
Today, my hair has grown back, I believe, much the same as it was before. I have heard that for some people it gets thicker or curly but so far, it feels like I’m getting back to myself and it’s almost embarrassing how great that feels when IT’S JUST HAIR! But I’ve decided that it’s really ok to care about it. It’s a very difficult thing to not feel and look like yourself and hair is a huge part of that. However, after everything else that I have been through during this time, my perspective has taken a very dramatic shift. When I reflect back on that girl in the hallway I almost never think about her hair. What I think about now, and what is so vividly in my memory now, is her smile. I now know that bright, uncontained smile. She was leaving the oncology office and waiting for her ride after hearing good news. That was a ‘good news’ smile and something I have experienced and want to experience again and again. I now want to be the girl in the hallway, so badly. When you have that good news, you don’t care about hair, you don’t care about fuzz, you are on top of the world and you just smile, bald and unafraid.