When I first learned I had cancer, I wasn’t sure how to respond. There was an element of disbelief, of shock, and of grief. Ironically, I was not scared, not for my life, not for my health or my future. I knew it would change things, being uneventfully healthy for so many years, one expects to live a very long time. What would be a reasonable expectation for that now? Would I get 10 years? 20 years? Most likely not the 50+ I was expecting. Would I lose my breasts? My hair? My eyebrows? Would I be less of a woman? These questions were fueled by conversations with friends and from my daughters, they were things I never thought to ask myself. I was unprepared, rarely venturing into self questioning of my mortal limitations. Young people tend to be invincible in life, maybe some people dare to ask the scary what if’s… I was just trying to figure out how to live now. Some of those questions are not for me to know the answers to yet, and I realized I am not willing to negotiate with God on such matters, HIS plan for me is sovereign.
I have a great oncologist, she told me flat out that I would lose my hair. As I talked with others they tried to soften the blow and comfort me with well-intended stories. I heard over and over, “some people don’t lose their hair.” Their encouragement was sweet but left me questioning if I would be one of the lucky ones? Growing up, I remember my Grandma tweezed her eyebrows right off and used thick liner to draw on her eyebrows. I am not sure if that’s where it stems from but I have a fear of losing mine… I have caught my youngest daughter praying at night that mine would stay put.
My oncologist suggested I try a “transition cut,” something shorter and with bangs. This was so that should I want to wear a wig, it would be a more natural transition. I looked up the closest Aveda salon and booked an appointment, first for my girls, then I picked a stylist for mine. Annie, was quiet with long wavy hair and streaks of fun color. She did a great job. I haven’t had bangs since grade school. When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised at how much I looked like my oldest sister.
This was also a turning point for me, does losing your hair have to be sad? It actually was freeing to try a new hairstyle with such a low commitment. Two weeks later, on a Wednesday before my second chemotherapy round, I went to see the oncologist. She was surprised my hair was still looking as full and radiant as ever… then she told me “sorry, but you’ll lose it this week.” Sure enough, the next day strands of hair began to fall like light drizzle before a storm. I have heard people say their head is itchy and when they scratch the hair falls out. Mine felt much more like the soreness of being in a tight pony tail, and when you brush your hair, or run your hand though it collects between your fingers. By Friday, the strands turned to clumps, and for as long as I ran my hand through the hair, the clumps would continue to fall out. My hair was noticeably thinner but not patchy. I filled several small garbage bins in my room and bathroom with mounds of hair. It became inevitable to me that I could not do this much longer, it was impossible to shower.
I called the stylist who gave me the transition cut, her first opening was Monday night. So Saturday and Sunday, I left my hair secured in a pony tail, to slow the shedding. In high-school I kept my hair long, even on the swim team. I would coil it up under a swim cap to keep it out of the way. It was during this time that I began donating my hair to locks of love. I loved the shock value of it, rarely would I tell my friends before I went to get the required 10+ inches off. Normally I just go by myself to get my hair done but this felt very different, I was the one affected by shock. This wasn’t a trim by choice, but a forcing of giving up control.
I thought of what I wanted this hair raising event to look like. I looked online a bit to see what other chemo fighters have done but found few positive personal stories. Was there some empowering moment to shaving your head? Some girl power – breast cancer – maiden voyage, right of passage celebration, that I should be willing to share with others? Who would be comforting for me to have with me? I decided I wanted to share it with my sisters. Could we have a little fun with this so it was not all emotional?
Thankful that I had at least met my stylist once before and had shared a little of my story, I didn’t need to explain, or send her searching for clippers. She offered me a little glass of wine, I took it knowing I could only take a few sips, perhaps it would put my nerves at ease. I sat down in her chair, and then I asked for a Mohawk.
I saw a slight smile on her face as she started to take the fastened pony tail out that was literally holding the hair on my head. As she trimmed away, I heard her say, “I have to throw out everything I know and just respond to your hair.” My hair was falling out so quickly now, every time she teased out the hair to trim with the scissors, it dropped from the root. My oldest sister took a swipe with the clippers then retreated around the corner, I don’t think she wanted me to see her tears.
We managed to cut and shave off the sides, leaving a row of hair down the top of my scalp. The product she used worked double-time as she styled the row upward and effectively glued it in place for a photo-op. Being around artists (and high-schoolers), I am accustomed to others expressing themselves through radical hairstyles, clothing choices, tattoos, and piercings. I have always maintained a more traditional look, even though I house some of the same unique personality quirks and radical thoughts on the inside. I am not sure if I would have ever had the guts to shave my head or try Mohawk on my own. I am glad I did it, who knows next time it may keep a little longer!
After the Mohawk I asked Annie to shave off the back just leaving the elevated patch where my bangs would be. This I chose to shave off myself.
Looking in the mirror for the first time was a bit shocking. I could clearly see my face without the framing of my hair. I was relieved that my facial features and ears were symmetrical, something I teach often to students in art class. I am so thankful my ears aren’t off kilter.
What now? How do you end a little session like that? Reality set in and little tears began to form in the corners of my eyes, my hair was really gone (or so I thought in that moment.) They all sensed my emotion, and in my best defense to lighten the mood, I turned to Annie speaking sarcastically “This is the worst haircut I have ever gotten, it is way too short, I demand to speak with your manager!” We all burst out laughing. Annie, told me later that was one of her favorite parts of the night.
My other sister who had been quietly watching, exclaimed that the baby inside of her was kicking and moving around. Then I realized this event of losing or lessening became a moment of embracing and celebrating. There is something beautiful about going with life, if I would have fought it, feared it, raged against it, I would have missed the sweet moments, the tears, and the laughter. It’s not hair that makes you beautiful, it’s loving others from a deep place in your heart. It’s about sharing life moments with each other, not getting all caught up in how they’re played out. It’s about making memories and recording them. It’s about responding joyfully and mostly it’s about new life.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14