I don't know what it's like for other breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, but the prospect of cleaning my hair out of clogged bathroom drains and hairbrushes until my naked pink scalp showed through a scraggly halo of baby hair was simply more than I could bear. When the first few strands blew out of my fingers into the spring breeze (chemo hair, as I called it), I practically knocked over furniture in a rush to get to my hairdresser to get it buzzed off.
At the chemo room, there were women (and men) at all stages of treatment. Most of the women wore scarves in creative twists and ties, some had almost practically undetectable wigs, some wore little skullcaps pulled down over their ears, some sported hats, some tried pathetically to slick what was left of their hair into something that looked on purpose. A very few were stone cold bald.
THIS IS NOT OUR FAULT
I wanted to stop the ones who tried to urge their fine hair into a coif. I admired the ones who wore stylish hats. I wasn't sure about the wigs and I wasn't really sure about the skullcaps; I only wore mine because I could use it as a sleep mask. But the bald women. There was something proud about them. The others seemed to be hiding the cancer as though it were something to be ashamed of, as though somehow they were to blame for it.
I really understood that thinking because you do wonder why you got cancer and your best friend didn't. I mean, I ate the right foods, exercised regularly, kept my weight down. But I must have done something wrong.
No, said my oncologist with still more information about cancer. Cancer does what cancer wants to do. If we understood cancer, we would have a cure for it by now. Don't blame yourself.
I took cues from the women I saw, and I got a beautiful and expensive wig that insurance paid for. But I only wore it twice. I felt dishonest. I felt, actually, a little stupid wearing a wig. And so I didn't wear it. I did not go gentle into public. Like Dylan Thomas urged, I burned and raved. Here I am, I was saying every day I went out bald. I have cancer. And I am doing the best I can. I just wore bigger earrings and more mascara.
Most of all, I was telling the world, I am not ashamed.
GREEN HAIR AND EYELASHES
Then I started to go a little nuts. I carried on with my normal activities and tried to feel normal, but who can feel normal walking around bald? There was no sense in trying to be normal, so I had this stupid idea that maybe a PINK wig or a GREEN wig or a BLUE wig might be fun and I went into New York City to Ricky's costume shop where I tried on all of those and ended up buying a neon pink and a Kelly green bob which, according to my son, made me look like a tequila shot girl at a Mexican restaurant.
A 60-year-old tequila shot girl at a Mexican restaurant.
I wore those wigs whenever I had a chance and they made me feel happy.
At the school where I teach, I had my class of 7th graders help me with my attitude about my Friday chemo appointments and chemo hair loss. We pretended it was fun. On Thursday, I'd say, "And what's tomorrow, boys and girls?"
And they'd all shout "CHEMO!!!! FREE BANANA PUDDING! YAY!" although they knew I hated it and I would be sick all weekend and they wanted me back on Monday all better. But we made this a Thursday ritual. Sometimes a student would bring me a stuffed animal to take to chemo, or lucky charm, or just a hug.
ANOTHER TIME YOU REALLY NEED YOUR FRIENDS
My dear, good friend, colleague, and carpooler Ginny held my hand and laughed at my morbid jokes and tolerated my conviction that I was going to die. On the way to work, we'd stop at Starbucks and she'd look at me to see if I was getting out to get us coffee, and I'd say, "What. You're not going to get the coffee? I have CANCER, for Pete's sake." And we'd laugh and go in together and she loved me and understood that, hey, what are you gonna do? I have cancer.
Then I got an awful cold. You'd think cancer would be enough. A cold is too common and stupid. It's eclipsed by cancer, but there it was: my voice all gravelly and nose stuffed up and eyes runny; I felt like dirt. When Ginny pulled up in the driveway to pick me up for work, I blew my nose and wiped my eyes, and all my eyelashes came out on the Kleenex, little stubby strands of black hair. I looked in the mirror. A naked face.
When Ginny came in the house, I just stood paralyzed and then I started to weep.
"My eyelashes fell out." It was like all the air was let out of me. I sagged, my shoulders drooped. The proverbial last straw – the last strand of hair.
And she took me in her arms and understood.
Up next, CHAPTER 7: Radiation
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