Two weeks to the day after my first chemotherapy infusion, my hair began to fall out. It started out with some extra strands weaving through my fingers in the shower and within three days it was coming out by the handful. I had cut short the hair I’d patiently grown out for over two years, a few weeks prior, hoping to feel some sense of control over the process. I knew it was coming and yet when it began is when I felt the real work of taking on cancer had begun.
Up until the evening Kirsten and Hattie sat me down and shaved what remained, I could still mentally keep what had transpired beneath the surface of my body at bay. Even seeing the new landscape of my chest post surgery could be pushed aside under layers of sweatshirts and sweaters. But my hair? My hair really was the point where I had to literally look at myself in the mirror and see the hard truth. I had been warned that this day would be difficult. Leading up to it, I would think, "It's just hair and it will grow back.” It is truly the most temporary thing I will endure in this process and yet there is something so symbolic about the day it’s time to shave your head. In that moment, cancer is really forcing you to surrender some of the most vulnerable parts of yourself. You literally transform into that person- the one everyone casts a sympathetic look towards when out running errands, the one all the women in the breast center waiting room secretly pray they don’t become. It is hard to put into words what this part feels like. Demeaning. Absurd. Shocking.
When it came time to finally give up the fight and zip what remained of my now dull and lifeless tresses, I summoned the two ladies in my life who I knew would show up with just the right mix of empathy, humor and perspective. My big sister and my daughter. We settled into the bathroom. I had a glass of my favorite wine sitting on the counter. We cranked up Lizzo on Spotify and they got to work. Little by little, one swipe of the razor at a time I parted ways with the old me. I kept my head down, trying not to think too much. I listened to the music and enjoyed the banter between us. Only once, when thinking about how my sister and daughter would now have to be so vigilant about their own health, did I tear up. When all was said and done, I looked into the mirror.
Perhaps for the first time ever did I actually see myself. Not if my hair was laying the way I wanted, if the concealer had done its job of covering up my undereye circles, not the fine lines forming around my mouth. I just saw myself. Stripped of all the layers. Did I love what I saw? Honestly, no. I am never going to pretend to be that evolved. I did not. It was startling and so strange to see myself. I couldn’t help but think of Doby the House Elf from Harry Potter. I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. But did I like what I saw? Yes. I looked better than I expected. It turns out I’ve got a decent shaped head and my new look makes my brown eyes really pop. Heck without those pesky gray hairs I was always finding, I may even look younger!
It wasn’t until later, when I was tucked into bed, did I let myself really cry. Damn cancer. It came for me and when I fought back, it took my hair. What else will it take? In all honesty there have been a few more tears than usual lately. Maybe it’s because I am truly in the thick of it now. While chemo is less horrible than I imagined, I am tired ALL. THE. TIME. I don’t ever feel great, have little appetite and in general do not feel anything like I am used to. The other day in the shower (where all good cries really happen) I thought, “Where did I disappear to?” Just a few months ago, my body was fully intact. Now I am covered in scars and have no hair. It is humbling, discouraging and surreal all at once.
After the past week it's safe to say there is an antidepressant in my future.
And yet while my generally optimistic nature is taking a few hits at the moment, I really do believe in the idea that two things can be true at once. Life can be ugly and lovely at the same time. The past few weeks underscore that. There have been rough patches for sure but there have also been numerous moments of joy; cards from complete strangers; a mysterious pot of tulips left on my table; a visit with my delightful 8-year-old niece; a basket of all things sunshine and yellow from friends at work; hearing Hattie calling me her cute little bald mama or having Ben who usually steers clear of me, settle in next to me each night to watch Jeopardy; Bryan who looks at me as though I am as beautiful as the day we met. These are the moments. The ones that stacked up against the fatigue, nausea, insecurities, worries and fears remind me that cancer will do what it wants but it can’t touch what truly matters and in the end; hair or no hair, scars and all, that makes me the winner.