Growing up, my sister and I were known for our braids and bows. Hair never worn down, we always had some elaborate child’s updo with hair accessories to match our outfits. As a teen and into adulthood, turning big chapters in my life always required a style change, whether that would be going blonde, coloring red or cutting 4 inches off (but never above my shoulders). I was oddly envious of girls who would cut their hair into short pixie cuts or would shave the side. They seemed to have a bold confidence I never had in myself, I could never do it because I needed to be able to change it at will, curly, straight, in a pony. There was too much permanence in a short haircut. Hair gave me a way to reinvent myself, express myself; and maybe in some ways, to hide. I always felt put together if my hair was done and for the most part, I always made sure it was right before I left the house. It only makes sense, but I never fully grasped how closely tied to my identity my head of hair was until it was gone. Our hair is one of the only parts of our physical self that we have the control to significantly change.
Being treated for breast cancer at the age 40 comes with a host of physical changes, many of which are invisible; scars, loss of sensation, altered fat distribution can be hidden with clothing. The dark under eye circles that come with the stress, medication and sleepless nights can be concealed. And with a healthy coat of mascara, lip gloss and the right outfit, I would hear, “you wouldn’t even know you’re sick.” But I was, I felt like garbage. I was scared, tired, in pain. But these simple tricks as well as making sure my hair was done let me hide from the vulnerability of it all. I could present as healthy. On the outside, I still looked like myself. And I clung to it. If I looked good and I was told I looked good, I had to be good.
It sounds so utterly vain and ridiculous. My tumor was a grade 3 and nearly 4 centimeters. The beginning of all of this was grim. But I was powered by adrenaline and maybe a bit of denial. Throughout it all, there were tears and moments of panic but when my hair started to fall and subsequently my eyelashes and eyebrows, I felt like I was losing me. And it was with this loss of myself and loss of control that I was pushed over the metaphorical edge of my ability to cope with my illness. It’s just hair, you’re lucky you aren’t dying I (and others) would tell me. It will grow back. But looking at myself like this made it real. I looked sick, therefore I was and I had to really come to terms with it. I felt naked and vulnerable. Covering my head with scarves and avoiding the mirror was the best I could do to cope. Wigs never felt right. Now I’m left envying not the women with short haircuts but the ones who seem to embrace the change and go out without covering their bald heads or choose to cover them with bold rainbow colored wigs.
As luck would have it, despite the size of the tumor, it never spread. I’ve had two surgeries and chemo wrapped up 8 weeks ago. Considered to be NED or “no evidence of disease,” with the exception of 5 years of Tamoxifen, I’m no longer an active cancer patient. My energy level is nearly restored. I’m working and momming like I was before. But my appearance is a reminder of what the last 8 months have been. I’m trying to wear it like a badge of honor but it’s a reminder of the trauma that I’m still very much recovering from. My hair is growing back. Now, I look in the mirror at my natural color which hasn’t truly been seen since 2001, very dark brown, now with silver throughout, it’s spiky and not quite a half inch long. And the wiry silver ones (oddly much longer than the dark hairs) remind me of a time where I hated them even more. There was a time, I would strategically tuck these ones in or pluck them right out making sure to make a hair appointment. Now, I leave them undisturbed. Every hair on my head is precious at this point. The treatment of these are on hold right now much like a large part of my life was put on hold this year. My hair, still very much tied in with my identity, has become a symbol of my cancer experience. As I watch my hair grow, I’m reminded of the last year. I’m still healing but I survived it.