I'm starting to let my hair grow out.
I have an old photo from when I was a child of my hair going all the way down my back, curling at the ends. I have had long hair for most of my life -- a mane, a friend called it when she saw my engagement photos. I used to wear it all sorts of ways -- in a ponytail, braided, down, held back with a headband... I wanted to be the kind of old lady who, instead of cropping it short, had long white braids that fall tumbling down her back or twist into a crown.
And then came my cancer diagnosis.
It was the certainty that I would lose my hair that hurled me into fear and grief.
From the moment I began to learn just how ill the doctors thought I was, I entered into an altered, shaken reality. But when the oncologist spelled out my exact diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis, it was not the possibility that I could die, but the certainty that I would lose my hair, that hurled me into fear and grief. My husband was naturally surprised that I could grieve for something that would return, as long as I survived. After all, I had never been terribly vain. As much as I appreciated my hair, I often neglected to even look in the mirror before I went out.
Maybe it was because hair so identifies a person. Maybe it was because the physical reminder would make it impossible to forget my condition. Maybe it was because I felt I was turning into something else, something ugly. In theory, appearances shouldn't matter, but when there's such a dramatic change, they most certainly do.
For the first few days after my first chemotherapy treatment, the hair loss was gradual. I felt my hair often to see what was happening and found myself pulling out one or two hairs at a time. On the day it really started in earnest, I shook all over. I felt I had witnessed a car crash.
The long locks tangled together and made the process worse, so I called a wig maker and asked her to cut it off. She had dealt with people in my situation dozens of times and carefully clipped the hair off so that we could send it to Locks of Love. I took a new style that would fall out less dramatically. It was super short, cut close to my head in a boyish 80's fashion. I liked the way it looked in theory, but knew I couldn't get too excited. Sure enough, the last of my hair separated itself from me bit by bit.
I bought a wig that looked similar to short haircut. That night I wore it to a support group. I sat quietly during the first half of the group and everyone assumed I was a relative of a cancer patient until it was my turn to speak and they learned the hair was fake. But soon enough I lost my confidence wearing it and now I hate looking at photos of it. It doesn't look like I'm wearing it right and it looks odd to have such dark hair framing a pale face without eyebrows.
I rarely wore the wig and opted for scarves and hats. But there were no secrets. Anyone could see right away I was a cancer patient. People felt sorry for me. People felt I was brave. People avoided me. With the exception of family, people no longer saw me and I no longer felt like myself anyway.
There were many things I joked about... sick things that only my husband and I, or only other patients, could understand. I could joke about chemo. I could joke about nausea. But I could not joke about my hair.
My husband worried that I would only define myself by the cancer.
Eventually the cancer was cured. I finished my eight rounds (six months) of chemotherapy, and the radiation treatment. I began to wonder how I would carry the experience with me now that it was over. Throughout my illness I met many other young people associated with cancer, including some who had made it their life's work now, running support groups or working in hospitals. My husband worried that all the things I had cared about before would fall by the wayside and that I would only define myself by the cancer.
It was hard to prevent my seeing myself as anything but a survivor. If I was moody or emotional one day, I had difficulty remembering that I had been like that even before the cancer. I wasn't sure if I was ready to move on. After nine months of everyone knowing me on site as a cancer patient, how could I proceed again as "normal"?
When I looked around at rushing cars and people worrying about trivialities, I wanted to have a badge of honor that says, "I know there's more to life than this." My only permanent physical scar was beneath my collarbone where a horizontal line now reminds me of the subcutaneous port I used to have for easy administration of chemotherapy. But my clothes cover it up.
I needed a badge, a scar, a physical proof that showed my life had changed forever.
So for four years, I wore my hair short.
In the beginning I was tempted to shave my head every summer as a more obvious reminder, but quickly got over that desire. So I don't particularly stand out with my short hair. It's only when new friends see old photos that they learn I had something that now is lost. I have often waited in anticipation for those conversations in which I could say, "Oh yeah, I used to have long hair. Oh no, I didn't cut it. I lost it," followed by my story.
Since my cancer, we've moved twice and I've met whole communities of strangers to whom I wanted so badly to tell my story. For a long time, if I met someone new and right away didn't know their own complex history, I assumed their life had been easy and that I was the only mature one and I could prove it by revealing, when I was ready, in just the right context, those key words: "cancer survivor."
Lately, things have started to go right for us. Since our latest move, my husband has had more and more work. I've also grown professionally as a teacher in the school near our new home. And the biggest change of all is that my husband and I are no longer a couple. Now we are a family. Last December I went to the hospital again, but this time it was to bring our new daughter into this world.
Cancer has changed me permanently. My awareness is double-edged. On one hand, I have become at least somewhat less concerned with trivial matters and carry with me a strong measure of calmness. Even on difficult days, it is easy to remember how fortunate I am to be alive and feel gratitude to God for my life. On the other hand, I also have the very real fear that any day we can wake up and encounter a loss.
But whether grateful or fearful, my life has continued and, joined with my husband's, we are blossoming with this new baby in our lives. Cancer will always be part of my history. But we're up to a new story now, a story that shows in my baby's smile.
So I don't need to wear the badge anymore. I don't need to show off a scar. I'm ready to let my hair grow again.