Breast cancer, I was determined, would not turn me into a frump. After all, “It’s better to look good than to feel good,” joked Billy Crystal as Fernando Lamos on Saturday Night Live.
I reigned in my mutinous cells with a co-ordinating, comfy recuperation wardrobe and coped with the “temporary” hair loss—so I was told—with wigs, scarves and beanies. Then, when my hair grew back a few months later, I’d gleefully burn them all in a bonfire.
Almost a year after my last round of chemotherapy, those wigs are getting ratty and my Lululemons look like baggy sweats. No sign of my hair anywhere. This is not normal, my doctors tell me. Hair normally returns four to six weeks after the end of chemotherapy.
“Are you bald everywhere?” my stunned oncologist asked, three months after the end of chemo.
He tried not to stare, but he was clearly perplexed.
“I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!” I wanted to shriek.
“None,” I replied.
He continued undaunted, trying to console me with his mad-scientist knowledge of history.
“In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs couldn’t get excited unless the women were bald,” he added, oblivious to the irony of his snow-white pompadour.
In a panic, I went straight home and Googled. Within minutes, I found a group of women on the Internet who claimed that the drug, Taxotere, had left them permanently bald. I stared at the computer screen in disbelief: Taxotere was part of my chemo cocktail. For the first time in my cancer ordeal, I burst into tears. Great big shoulder-heaving, life-altering sobs.
Maybe I’m just a late bloomer. Maybe my follicles are just freaked out. “Your hair will come back,” my boyfriend consoles, kissing my melon like the Blarney Stone. Still, not one barbed-wire eyebrow has reappeared and I am getting nervous.
Now, instead of peering into the mirror to pluck out a wayward eyebrow or a “broken guitar string,” as one hairstylist dubbed my grey hair, I see a bald head and a rapidly sagging neck. On a bad day I see cancer. On a good day, I see a 100-year-old Galapagos turtle. An accidental glimpse in the mirror is enough to make me withdraw into my shell.
When people ask how I am, I know I’m supposed to smile and cheerily reply “fine”. Along with the depression and humiliation of being bald, comes the added burden of having to be chipper.
It’s hard to be honest with yourself when the well-coiffed try to console you by saying, “There are worse things than losing your hair” Or “Wear a wig.” This, as any wig wearer will attest, is like wearing a small furry animal on your head in July.
Though not as immediately dismissive, my friends are suffering from compassion fatigue. Compassion, like a statute of limitations, expired when I finished radiation. It’s time to get back to normal. As a good friend said, “I’ve got stuff too.” So I am forced to wonder out loud. How long can I continue to hope? Why does my dear dude stick around? And how do I relate to the world as a bald woman, stripped of the style that I thought defined me?
I say “thought” because there is nothing like cancer to challenge everything you had deemed important. Whoever said that cancer is a gift should be spanked. But that absurd statement does capture cancer’s one redeeming feature: an instant inability to sweat the small stuff.
So why is being bald such a big thing for a woman? As my surgeon told me, one of the first questions women about to undergo chemotherapy ask is, “Will I lose my hair?” Apparently, some women experience more depression over the prospect of losing their hair than over a cancer diagnosis—and some have even refused chemo to avoid hair loss. My health care providers did an admirable job of preparing me for the physical and psychological devastation of chemo, but we were all unprepared for my enduring baldness. No one saw this coming.
Some breast cancer “survivors” whose hair has returned are quick to thank the chemo they’re convinced kept them alive. Along with being bald and embarrassed, the follicly-endowed make me feel guilty and superficial. As a triathlon team-mate awkwardly tried to console, “No one cares if you’re bald.” She’s right in a way. We live in an increasingly narcissistic society–a weird sort of relief. That lady is too busy talking on her cell phone to care. That kid is too busy updating his Facebook page to notice.
Defining a New Sense of Self
But I do care that no one told me that chemo might leave me permanently bald. I could have been prepared. I could have made an informed choice. Not out of vanity, but out of the simple desire to make my own decisions. This is my life, not a game of Breast Cancer Barbie. Like some cosmic joke, I was stripped of my choice, my hair and my quality of life–no small indignity. Now, I’m supposed to be a good girl and keep quiet.
Sans cheveux, I am struggling to define a new sense of self. We live in a culture in which hair is the crowning glory of one’s femininity. To be a hairless woman in this society is to be neutred. “I feel like an ugly old man,” says a fellow baldie.
So I seek solace at the gym. The guys in the weight room don’t seem to care. I’m just one of the boys under my baseball cap. Alas, I can run, but I cannot hide. Each workout begins and ends in the women’s changeroom, where every shape and size of femininity struts around with a towel on her head.
Trying to look like one of the girls, I do the same, but without lashes, my big, bare blue, eyes stare back at me with even greater intensity. I’m enough to scare small children arriving for their swimming lessons. One thing is for sure, I don’t want their mother to have to answer the question, “Why is that lady bald?”
As I adjusted my turban one night, I stood next to a woman getting dolled up the night. I couldn’t help feeling envious as she langorously applied her mascara, like some cosmetic foreplay. It was hard not to watch, like a little girl watching mommy put on make-up.
I averted my gaze as it wandered back to my own face. I don’t see a vision of health. I see my disease staring back at me. A light bulb with eyes. “Who is this person?” I wonder. A thing? An it? An I?
“Own it,” a male friend advised. I’m trying. Really. Every day, I force myself to get out the door, an ordeal in itself. The daily what-to-wear is compounded by what to wear on my head. Every morning I put on the same heap of clothes that I left on the floor the night before. Now instead of being designed for style, my wardrobe is designed to skulk away from stolen stares.
“It’s a scar,” says my brother. Exactly. I’d planned to go through my cancer treatments like a trooper, get my hair back and go back to normal. Now when I look in the mirror, I don’t see health. I see the face of disease. I just want to get “on with it”, but it’s strangely difficult without hair.
Even a friend’s shitzu understands the humiliation of hairlessness: she hides under the couch after her seasonal shave. That little dog instinctively understands what the hair-brained do not: that to be shorn of her hair is to be shorn of femininity, her very sense of self.
I feel like the line from the Talking Heads song, “Self. How did I get here?” Our lives sometimes take us places we never imagined. “Think of what you are learning from this,” says a friend desperately searching for consoling words. I have lots of questions, but no answers. And they don’t even have the soul-plumbing satisfaction of life’s big questions.
In lieu of any answers, my fickle follicles make me realize that I have to accept the fact that this story may not have the neat ending of a pop psychology morality tale: I suffered, I overcame and I am a better person for it.
All these months later, I am wondering where to draw the time line between temporary and permanent hair loss. I swing between hope and the bald facts. As oncologist Jerome Groopman says, hope is “clear-eyed” and has no room for delusion. I’m clear-eyed all right. I just wish those eyes had some lashes.