Let’s talk about hair.
Many people who go through chemotherapy treatment lose their hair. I don’t have an exact number for “many” (I Googled it but couldn’t find any statistics for you); I’m basing my “many” on the fact that almost everyone I’ve known who has had cancer lost theirs.
There are chemotherapy regimens in which people don’t lose their hair. It thins, but doesn’t fall out completely. In those cases, the patient may be the only one who even can tell that they’ve lost hair. I say “lucky you” to those people — cancer is enough of a burden, and any way you can grab a break is a gift.
Not losing your hair is a gift. It’s odd that something so natural — having hair on your head — could be considered a gift but when your whole life is destabilized due to three little words (“you have cancer”), you hold on tight to the good things.
Soon after I was diagnosed, I cut three inches off my hair and got bangs. It was my way of preparing for what was to come. Hair was one of the only things I could control at that point. For some time, I had wondered if I should get bangs, so, faced with the almost certainty that I would lose my hair in the coming weeks, I figured why not try it out, and snip snip, I had bangs.
I also attempted, twice, with the help of a stylist, to dye a streak of pink in my hair. It would make my daughter happy, I thought, and, if I hated it, again, who cared, it would fall out! But, despite our best efforts, the hair dye wouldn’t take. Perhaps the stylist, who had little experience with pink dye, did something wrong, or perhaps my hair rebelled — No more changes! No attempts to be hip and current! — and refused to let the color set. There may be a limit, after all, to the amount of transformation — by choice or not — that a person can take.
My hair started to change around the third round of chemotherapy. The texture felt different; the hair seemed, well, sick. Chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, which is cancer, of course, but also hair. I was hopeful that if my hair was starting to look not-so-good that maybe the cancer cells, any that were floating around after surgery, wouldn’t be doing well either.
The chemo regimen I’m on doesn’t typically cause all of the hair to fall out at once; rather, it thins the hair slowly. By round five of chemo, my hair was coming out with more frequency. Hair washing, combing, or even just running my fingers in my hair would be enough to cause strands and strands of hair to fall out. Strands and strands. My husband, in his never-ending quest to be supportive and wonderful, would buoy me up. “It doesn’t look like your hair is falling out,” he would say, as I stood over our bathroom sink, hair coating the surface. He would dry my tears and hug me. “It really doesn’t.”
I suppose to others I looked the same. But I knew I didn’t look like myself. Somehow the combination of shorter hair, bangs, and, of course, the hair falling out everywhere, made this portion of chemotherapy so strange, so unsettling. When I mentioned to my oncologist that my hair was falling out, she nodded. “Many of our patients find this to be the hardest part,” she said knowingly. “But it will come back.”
I hit my limit when, stopped at a red light on a warm spring afternoon last week, I pulled out a clump of hair from the back of my head. I felt the sunlight bounce off the hair as I let it slip from my fingers onto the road. Then I drove away. And that it was it. I went home, pulled out the electric clippers, and shaved my head.
Okay, first I watched some YouTube videos on how to shave your head. They were technically helpful, but provided no emotional support. So I put on Scandal, figuring Olivia Pope’s “it’s handled” approach to work would inspire me to get it done. (It helped, kind of.)
I’ll tell you the truth: shaving my head wasn’t so bad. I didn’t cry; I wasn’t upset. It was time. I was over finding strands of my hair on my clothes, on top my toothbrush, even in my food. I needed to not worry anymore about it.
I did awful job shaving my head, though. My husband, upon seeing my buzz cut, did his supportive thing, but when pressed by me to comment on how I looked, he smiled. “It looks like whoever cut your hair didn’t like you very much,” he smiled. We dissolved into laughter. Together, we can laugh at cancer, and that’s a comfort. We can cry, too, but I much prefer the laughter. We went into the bathroom, and he fixed the bumps and mullets I had left on my head, smoothing out the buzz cut into something more like Demi Moore wore in G.I Jane.
My kids handled the new look in the best way they could. My son looked sad and gave me hug. Then, he rubbed my head. For good luck? Reassurance? My daughter burst into tears and ran away from me, breaking my heart a little bit. She’s better now, but demands a wig when I go anywhere in public with her. She, too, has embraced rubbing my head, and, often, when I am wearing a hat, she’ll ask me to take it off, so she can see my head. “Yes,” she’ll nod. “That’s what you look like now. I forgot.”
There’s something about her forgetting that I find comforting. It’s a reminder that we are more than our hair; we are more than the exterior of ourselves. I’m focusing on that, as I pass through my sixth round of chemotherapy, the half-way point of this part of my treatment. We are more than what is on the outside. We are loved and appreciated for ourselves; how we look, our “packaging,” may be appealing but it’s not what we can depend upon in tough times. Our spirit, our kindness, our compassion, and our connections to one another are more valuable. I knew that before cancer, but I am now reminded of it every day.