Let me start by saying this: It’s taken me most of my life to get good at doing my own hair. The irony that my hair is now mostly gone and what remains is rapidly falling out like a rainstorm, is not lost on me.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I lived in the false illusion that I would be able to “save my hair”. I held tightly onto that belief until my oncologist determined my protocol and a quick Google search confirmed my worst fear: my chemotherapy medications cause total hair loss. As I grappled with that loss, I quickly bought trendy headwear and a menagerie of wigs, determined to not look like a cancer patient.
Two weeks to-the-day from my first treatment my hair started falling out in clumps. The clumps piled up in the shower drain and the bathroom sink the morning of my second chemotherapy, and as I set down my bag to step on the scale at the doctor’s a clump of my hair came with it. The next day, I shaved it off live on Facebook (as many of you watched).
In the moment, I was determined to take control of something that felt out of control. I was ready to embrace the cute hats and the variety of wigs. I was headstrong and determined to not let this part of my cancer journey rattle me. It didn’t – for approximately 18 hours.
The next morning, as I walked into our bathroom, I caught my bald-headed reflection in the mirror for the first time – and my heart sank. The outpouring of support from my head-shaving left me feeling brave and confident in my decision from the day before, but now reality was setting in. My head is a great shape, yes, but I’m still bald and now I officially look like a cancer patient. There’s no hiding it anymore.
That same day, I had back-to-back video meetings with clients and virtual speaking engagement that afternoon. I grappled with what to do about my hair. Do I go bald? Wear a hat? Put on a wig? If I don’t wear a wig, will they know I have cancer? Will that make them uncomfortable? Do I care? Do I want to have a conversation about my cancer with these people? Do I want to see another human give me the side-tilt pity face that everyone inevitably makes when you tell them “I have cancer”? If I wear a wig, will they be able to tell?
I weighed those questions until the final moments before my meeting when I inevitably slid on a wig and pretended everything was okay. Thirty minutes into the meeting I was in agony. I was having a full blown chemo hot flash and dying in the wig. As I jumped off for a different video call, I quickly told the client I had cancer, that I was wearing a wig, and promptly took it off in front of him on video. The release was like taking off a pair of jeans that were just a little too tight after wearing them a little too long. I was too distracted by my own relief to notice if he was horrified, confused, or impressed. I’m not sure I cared.
That was a week ago and honestly, I’m still struggling with the bald head-hat-wig decision. I mostly wear a hat these days because my remaining stubble is falling out rapidly and needs to be contained – otherwise my desk looks like someone shaved their beard on it. Aside from the hair loss, my scalp is so tender the idea of sliding on a wig makes me want to vomit. Nonetheless, every morning I grapple with the decision of what to do about my head, not because of how I feel about it, but because of how other people will.
When I was first diagnosed my husband looked at me and said, “How can I support you on this journey?” I remember looking at him plainly and saying, “Don’t treat me like a cancer patient.” I chuckle at that sentiment now, but in the moment I know why I said it. I feel it every morning now as I walk my daughter to school. I see the parents in their cars pulling away after dropping their kids off, looking at me, like a cancer patient. I see the pity-filled looks at the grocery store, the post office, and the bank.
But it’s not the pity. It’s not the sad side-tilted face people make when you tell them you have cancer. It’s not even my hair.
It’s because I don’t want it to be true. I don’t want to have cancer. I don’t want to be sick. The hair loss has just made cancer real on the outside, as much as on the inside. Up to this point, I could hide my cancer. Now I can’t. So in total truth-telling, know that I am struggling with my hair loss, but mostly because I’m finally being forced to face the fact that my cancer is real, that this is hard, and that I am not, in fact, Superwoman (although I will continue trying to be).
It was never about not feeling pretty or feminine (dammit I have a nice head and I look GOOD in a hat). It was never about what people thought about my bald head/hat/wig. It was never about them. It’s 100% about having to face the hard truth that my cancer is real – and honestly – I still find myself occasionally in disbelief.
Nonetheless, here I am, a cancer patient.
I am so grateful for the outpouring of love and support. The cards, the notes, the comments, the gifts, the meals from my large tribe of friends and family have been so meaningful to me. Thank you all. I’m still finding joy along the journey, having faith that this wilderness is for a reason, and will turn these trials in to triumph and wisdom for the people after me.