Everyone has told me that my hair will start falling out fourteen days after the first chemo treatment, emphasis on WILL. I await this momentous occasion with trepidation, false bravado, and magical thinking that everyone is just plain wrong.
Monday: I am aware of the fact that my hair should start falling out in three days. While sitting in the car, waiting to order a sandwich at Great Outdoors, I feel something on the back of my head. I rub the spot and think, “Great. I’m going to be bald and have a zit on the back of my scalp.”
But there is no bump. Then I realize my scalp hurts, like when you wear your ponytail too high all day and then take it down and your hair is confused as to which direction it should bend. I’m thinking this is the beginning of the end. I’ve heard this is how it starts.
My husband (who is bald) wants me to shave it off, immediately. He tells me to “own it.” He is chomping at the bit, over the moon that, finally, someone will understand how he felt when his hair started falling out in high school. I’m glad I’m talking to him on the phone and not in person so he can’t see my huge eye roll.
I tell him I’m not going to shave my head until I’m certain that my hair is really, definitely going to fall out. I’m still holding out hope that I’ll be one of the lucky ones, that Taxol won’t affect me like it does almost everyone. I know I’m deluding myself, but you never know, there’s always a chance.
Time to pull out the scarves and practice tying knots.
Tuesday: My son’s girlfriend and I have a discussion about not shaving my hair until I’m absolutely certain that it’s really going to fall out. She uses the words “clumps” and “patchy.” She thinks if I cut it really short and it comes out in clumps, I might have bald spots. If I keep it long then at least the longer pieces might cover up the patches.
Am I really considering a female comb-over for myself? Has it really come to this?
The hardest thing of all is going to be losing my eyelashes. I can imagine myself bald, but I cannot for the life of me imagine myself without eyelashes. Eyelashes are pretty, and mine have always been long and worthy of mascara. I resolve to continue wearing mascara until I have only three eyelashes left. Less than that would look ridiculous, right?
Now, losing the eyebrows is an entirely different matter. I don’t mind losing them at all. Here’s to a pluck-free next three months! And how can I complain about not having to shave my legs for the next three months?
Wednesday: My husband can hardly contain his excitement about getting to shave my head. It’s like Christmas in July. Who knew he could derive such joy from such a weird thing? Is this every bald man’s secret dream, to have their wives lose their hair and get to shave it off for them??? I’m mildly disturbed but glad he’s willing to help.
Thursday: Definitely more pain on the back of my head why I wake up. Hair still hanging tight, though.
Friday: A trip out of town has put some distance between my husband and his razor, thank God. This trip was needed, if only for that reason. For the first time, after I wash my hair, I notice a small handful of hair. The exodus has begun.
While visiting relatives in Oklahoma, including an uncle who is battling cancer, my aunt shows us photos of his curly post-chemo hair. I can only dream of getting the curly hair I’ve always wanted. My aunt’s sister-in-law, also a cancer survivor, tells me how hers fell out within a week. Her advice: “shave it all off.”
Saturday: More hair loss. An unexpected trip to the ER later that night (due to an infection where they removed the IVF filter from my neck), and seeing the semi-long strands of hair all over the pillow are proof of the truth. This is really going to happen.
Sunday: I’m not happy about being in the hospital on my “good,” non-chemo days. Maybe this colors my thinking, but I’m starting to feel very sad about losing my hair. I thought it would be no big deal. I’m actually dreading having to shave it off.
Monday: I’m released and get to go home. I tell Michael it’s time. Let’s do this.
I’m crying before he even starts shaving. I’m surprised. Why is this so hard? I realize that for the first time in my life I will be bald. I had a full head of hair when I came into this word, jet black American Indian hair my mom always said, so this is something completely new. It feels like the time I decided to ride the double loop roller coaster for the first time with my son, how I would have paid someone any amount of money to stop the ride and pull me off before we got to the top of the hill and descended into the first loop.
I do not want to shave off my hair.
He gets out the electric shaver and starts shaving. I cry the entire time. I hate it so much.
Afterwards, I look at myself and think of all the things my female friends have said when discussing this: You’re going to look great. You have such a pretty face. I can’t wait to see what you’ll look like.
I look like a concentration camp victim. I look like a bug. I look really ugly.
I don’t want anyone to see me. I am so embarrassed.
What is up with me? I’m a feminist! It’s just temporary!! I am more than my hair!!!
I am almost bald.
It takes me days to get used to the shock of seeing myself in the bathroom mirror. I wear a scarf or hat and never take it off until the lights are off. What I could hide before is now visible to the entire world: I have cancer. I could pick and choose who I let know what I was going through before. Now, there’s no hiding.
When I reached a certain age, namely 50, I noticed I suddenly became a little bit invisible. Ask most middle-aged women and they will tell you the same thing. There’s a certain threshold a woman reaches when male eyes glance and slide past to younger, greener pastures. But there is also a freedom that comes with being invisible, a more carefree kind of existence, and you learn to accept that you have to make yourself visible with more than just your looks.
But now, suddenly, people were looking at me again. Their eyes would linger just a little longer than they should, noticing my scarf and lack of hair. It wasn’t mean-looking, it was more curiosity-looking. It’s summer in Texas and she’s wearing a scarf. Something must be wrong with her.
And that’s the problem right there. I hate having to show my weakness to the world. Even against something like cancer, I hate having to show others that there is something that may be stronger than me, something I can’t fight off or wish away.
Being bald is the manifestation of the weakness one has to accept when they have cancer. It’s the loss of control that’s on display for everyone to see. Before, I didn’t have to tell you unless I wanted you to know. Chemo, in addition to all the other harsh effects on your body, makes it visible for everyone to see. It takes your choice away.
It’s really okay, it’s been a great lesson for me, especially in giving up control. But when you’re forced to make yourself so vulnerable to others, to show them what you’re dealing with, there’s a lot of pity that comes from that–and I do not want anyone’s pity over this.
All I really want is my hair.
Hair! It is SO over rated right!?
Angela…I don’t pity you. I don’t know why this has happened to you…but, Mrs. “I look like a bug” you look like a SUPER bug to me!!!
You, your story serves as such an inspiration for so many! I personally am SO happy to have met you and sincerely look forward to spending more “quality” time with you.
I won’t lie though. I have some of my own hurdles to jump. So, let’s just say this friendship will simmer for many years to come. 😉 life is just like that right now. I guess that is ok.
Thanks for keeping us all posted. Such a beautiful smile, even if it was fake. 😉
Thanks, Kathy. I hope your hurdles are small ones and not health related. If they are, I know you will clear them easily and run stronger because of them.
The pity was more than likely mostly in my head, but it was there sometimes in the looks of strangers. It’s okay. It’s human.
The hair thing was so surprising to me because I really didn’t think losing it would be such a big deal. Guess I’m more vain than I thought I was. 😦
I look forward to getting to know you better in the coming years!
What an incredibly powerful, and educational, piece of writing. I know you don’t want pity, but there were times reading this that I did feel very sad. Your emotions were so palpable. But with the ache I felt, I also laughed. I laughed where you laughed, and wondered about your husband. 😉 And though I have never walked in your shoes, I did sympathize with the loss of control. I know I can’t truly walk in your shoes. But I felt, through your words, like I have taken a few short steps by your side, with you.
Thank you for sharing this. As difficult as it is. I truly felt a great deal while I was reading it.
Sadness, to me, is very different from pity. Pity is more feeling sorry for someone, as an outsider, and sadness is empathizing with the way they feel. Maybe it’s just semantics, or my own perception. I can handle someone feeling sad because of what I went through, but pity seems judgmental. To me.
Thanks, Colleen! My hair is growing back, finally, but not fast enough.
Thank you for sharing this. It was a moving and powerful read. I can so relate to not wanting to show vulnerabilities to the world- how hard it must have been to have it forced on you. When I see a cancer patient, though, I don’t see vulnerability. I see only strength. And courage. Think of what a great ambassador you have been for those wonderful qualities.
You DO have a pretty face, and such a radiant smile, hair or not.
Thank you, Tina.
I liked how you described how it feels when it’s beginning to fall out. I never knew how to describe that feeling except to say that my scalp hurt when my hair went against the grain. LOL My scalp felt like I had a bad sunburn. It is funny that we try to convince ourselves that we’ll be the ‘one’ that beats the odds and won’t lose our hair. I remember telling my oncologist that I was upset about losing my hair. She saw the look on my face and told me that it will get patchy. I had some hope until the nurses told me flat out “you are definitely going to lose your hair.” Insert a good cry here. And I also had to laugh at the eyelash/mascara comment. I found myself putting mascara on what was possibly 3 eyelashes. Why not, right? Finally, I know that feeling, too, of being bald in public. It screamed “I’m sick.” After a while I said the heck with it. I didn’t care what people thought. I tried to view the hair loss as saying “look at me…I am resiliant.” Had you noticed other bald women before you lost your hair? Somehow I never really noticed until I was a baldy.
I really did wear mascara until I had about three eyelashes left. And I also reached a point where I stopped caring what other people thought, especially now that I’m done with chemo. I wear my super short hair as a badge of honor. I never saw many women wearing scarves or hats before I got cancer.
By the way, you look beautiful!!
crying. what a powerful and honest post. my sisters both said losing their hair was hands down the WORST part of the breast cancer and chemo. and oh how I believe them. they said the physical pain sucked, but they could deal with it. but it was the emotional baggage that went with their hair that was so incredibly hard. at the time I thought it was a little bit crazy, but hearing so many stories afterwards I now think it’s rationale and justified. you write about it so eloquently (of course because you are so eloquent!). a big bug??? more like a beautifully strong woman. at least that’s what I see! you continue to be one of my heros. I am honored to “know” you.
Monica, you are too sweet. I honestly thought losing my hair wouldn’t be such a big thing. I told everyone, “It’s just hair. No big deal.” Boy, was I wrong. I’m still surprised at how hard it was. I’m so happy to “know” you as well!
I don’t know what to say…you’re being so much braver than I would be. I completely understand about the choice to tell people being taken away from you, I would feel exactly the same way. You still look lovely though. Take care 🙂
Everyone says that, that they wouldn’t be so brave, but I don’t believe that. You would be. Your ultra training is also great training for going through something like this. Thanks for the compliments!
Feminist ideals or no, our hair is such a big part of our appearance and identity. It’s not surprising that you hated the shaving. I hope that when this is over, you grow the most strikingly beautiful head of curly hair. In the meantime, wishing you strength and courage and – as soon as possible – health.
I will take curly, straight, gray, orange, anything as long as it’s hair. I am much happier now that my eyebrows are visible again, and my eyelashes are still short, but they’re nice and thick. I don’t wear much make-up, but I’m looking forward to wearing mascara again!
Yes, eyelashes and eyebrows must make such a difference. Wishing you health and hair in 2014.
And I’ve put in a special request that my hair grow back as beautifully curly as yours!
Thanks for sharing such an honest post. Lots of tears you had to go through this but lots of smiles with how strong you become in the process.
They have always been more smiles than tears, even when it was really tough. The nurses told me after surgery that a positive attitude was the best medicine, and they were right.
Angela, this is wonderful. I mean, THIS is what it is about. This is real, impactful writing, art, creation, whatever you want to call it (“blogging” is just too reductive, though) — raw, unabashed, brave, haunting, redemptive. Here, you reminded me of this quirky book by Chuck Palahniuk called “Diary” that’s all about the role of suffering in creativity; essentially everyone knows that the best art emerges only through great suffering, is the point. I am so sorry, so sad, you are suffering (I am crying!), but I am so grateful for the way you are inspiring others and for the fact that you will recover and will continue to positively impact the community around you. Thank you for sharing this. You are gorgeous from the inside out.
Christina, I will check out the book. I think we both know about suffering and the creative force. Some things just have to spill forth. I had a lot of fun writing this post, if only because losing my hair turned out to be such a traumatic event. I was really surprised by that. Coming from such a great writer (and all around kickass woman) such as yourself, I’m honored by your comments.
I was going to say something similar to what Christina said, but she did a better job. I pointed this post out to another blogger I know because your writing lately has really turned a corner. It’s a hell of a way for it to happen, but we don’t always get to choose what forces shape us, do we?
Stay frosty, Angela.
Thank you. I think the things we struggle with the most are exactly the things that shape us the strongest, in many areas of our lives. It somehow makes it all worth it.
It’s been a cold winter for us Texans, hasn’t it?
Symbols, outward signs and control – you weaved them all together beautifully in your well-told story. I can’t directly relate to your experience but having to listen to the platitudes of others definitely struck a chord among many.
Thanks, Lyle. Hopefully reading about cancer is as close as you’ll ever come to experiencing it yourself.
I can’t think of a thing to add to the previous comments, but I echo them… it sucks, but you survived. That counts.
Indeed, it counts for everything.
You are so brave. I’d be terrified to be so open to the world. Wow.
No, you wouldn’t. It might not be immediate, but you would share your story as well. Being so close to losing it all makes you realize you have nowhere to hide. It becomes cathartic and healing.
You may want your hair, but the smiles came through loud and clear without it! Stay the course to move forward!
I’m on it, Frank! Sometimes you have to laugh through the tears to make it through.
I can only imagine … but your determination is more that noteworthy.
It’s pure stubbornness, but thank you.
That’s understandable! 🙂
showing your weakness? OMG nooooo, showing your strength! For this is/was a battle, the scarf is a badge. If people look, and understand, most will offer comfort, like I told someone else, accept the comfort, they are not looks that should make you feel weak. It is not pity, it is love offered, so share strength. I think the scarves are very pretty too. My aunt wore one, her hair is very curly now. 🙂
Angela, you don’t know me. Faye Johnson is my cousin and she shares your posts on FB. I am also a cancer survivor. I had rectal cancer in 2011. I never lost all my hair, but I do remember the feelings when it started falling out. You express yourself well and pulled me into the details. Thank you for sharing. God bless you.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Rhonda, and for leaving a comment. You were lucky yours didn’t all fall out. I am so glad mine is slowly coming back, especially my eyebrows and eyelashes. I’m so happy to hear you’re in remission and survived.
This is such a great post Angela. Your view on this depends on which end of the telescope you are looking through. You see this as revealing weakness, I see your attitude as an inspirational display of strength. You see an ugly bug, I see a woman whose beauty is not defined by her hair or anything physical, but by her heart. You think you are showing off that something else is stronger than you. Nothing is stronger than you.
Thanks for that perspective, Peter. I can only share what it feels like from my end of the telescope. My husband told me similar things as you after he read my post. (And thanks for the reminder that I DID kick cancer’s a*@ to the curb!!!)
Powerful post I can feel your emotions through the words! You look beautiful! 🙂
Thanks so much. I’ve gained a lot more confidence just from being bald, so it hasn’t been all bad!
No fake smile on that last day of chemo!! Gorgeous inside and out!
Thanks a bunch!
Wow – what a powerful and moving post. Thank you for sharing this with us. While I can’t imagine what you went through, I can admire your courage and resilience. You are such an inspiration!
Here’s hoping 2014 will be filled with lots of good things for you my friend.
Thanks so much. Wishing you all the best for 2014 as well!
My sister and I both went through breast cancer 13 years ago, and we were recently talking about the way cancer changes you – in good ways, as well as bad. From the perspective of 13 years out, we both feel that the good has outweighed the bad, but man, those initial shocks to the system were tough to take. Your honest and beautifully told tale of your journey is going to help a bunch of folks for years to come. So here’s a thank you from all of them!
You and your sister both went through the same cancer at the same time? What are the chances of that happening? Crazy. It must be a great feeling to be a 13 year survivor. It seems as if I hear of another friend being diagnosed with breast cancer almost monthly. I worry about having to deal with that one day, too.
By the way, I am woefully behind on all your posts. I tend to save them because I love them so much, but I only seem to get further and further behind because of it! I haven’t forgotten your blog!
Well, she was actually diagnosed some months after me, so it wasn’t exactly the same time. But my mother had it too, so I’d say that’s definitely a family history! Don’t have that gene, though, for what that’s worth. 🙂 No worries about catching up on my posts – I seem to feel pretty uninspired lately!
Amazing that you don’t have the BRCA gene. We ruled that out for me as well, which my daughter was very happy about.
At least you have a nicely shaped head under your hair. Some of us, shaven, could pass for tropical fruit or melons nobody’s ever seen. So glad to see you back, and to hear you have begun training in the physical again.
Thanks for the head compliment! I ran 4 very slow miles yesterday, my longest distance since last May. On the road to recovery!
That is wonderful news!
You are awesome & Beautiful!
Angela, as always, a fantastic thought-provoking, heartstring-tugging, eloquent post. It’s great to see you battling through and winning!
Love the do by the way. You remind me of a young Sinead O’Connor. All the best for the recovery and so glad you’re out running again!
Ha! Sinead I am not, but I love the comparison. It feels fabulous to be running again.
Beautiful, beautiful you. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much for visiting. I love your blog and will definitely read more of your posts. I think we might have a lot in common.
With the wind flowing across your scalp, your runs must feel so much faster. So glad to hear you are doing well. You have a lovely head!
Sadly, my short hair hasn’t made me feel any faster. Running is still a struggle. But I do love not having that ponytail swinging along behind me.
I came across your website the other day via other websites by bloggers on cancer:
I couldn’t stop reading — you write beautifully and you are very photogenic 😉 — and that even after all you have been through.
There are a lot of things I would like to comment on, but on hair:
I also had cancer (breast cancer) about 15 years ago and had chemotherapy (not quite the strong stuff you had — you had Taxol and cisplatin, right?). Before it all, I thought, what is all this fuss people make about losing your hair? It grows back and is just “decorative” — not essential for life. When it all started, my health insurance organized for me to get a wig, for when needed… LIke you, I waited to see what would happen on the hair front. What happened was that one day, just before going to a restaurant, I noticed some bald patches. My hair looked rather moth-eaten — best description, I’m afraid… So I wore a cap. My “hairstyle” got shorter and shorter, but I never had to resort to the ultimate shave. I could get away with wearing hats and caps and had some “real hair” sticking out. But the hair business did get me distressed and embarrassed nevertheless, despite me trying to rationalize it all to myself. I think trying to understand one’s emotions help, but you cannot make them go away completely. I never wore the wig.
Good luck getting back into running! I am also a runner, but was never an ambitious one in terms of doing it competitively. I just love doing it, being out there, and giving my thoughts free rein. I know it is one of the best therapies you can get, and I am sure you are benefiting from that!
Thanks for the insights, Karen, and for your kind words. I have a friend with breast cancer who refused to shave her hair during chemo. She had little wisps of hair that she would arrange under her caps to give the illusion not being almost completely bald underneath. To each his own! My hair is very short now, but I’m just happy to have something there. And I feel less like a bug now that I have eyebrows and eyelashes again!
You really rock the aerodynamic look!
I found your blog through pinterest of all things. I was just diagnosed with germ cell ovarian cancer in December (actually Christmas day). Its been a crazy ride thats for sure, I am only 29. I find great strength and encouragement through your words. Thanks for sharing your own journey. I am also blogging if youd like to check it out..
Hope youre doing well. I agree, the treatments SUCK!
Hang in there Jyndia and just get through the treatments. Stay as positive as you can–it does help. Thanks for reading, and I will most definitely check out your blog. Writing helps as well!
Thanks for the link to my post. Hang in there!
Thank you for this post, especially this part: “And that’s the problem right there. I hate having to show my weakness to the world. Even against something like cancer, I hate having to show others that there is something that may be stronger than me, something I can’t fight off or wish away.” Reading this was like reading in print what I have been thinking for weeks. I am just starting to lose my hair, and reading your words I feel comforted that I am not alone. Thank you.
Beth, thank you for your wonderful comment. I’m so happy knowing my words helped you. You will get through this. If it makes you feel any better, after chemo I refused to cut my hair again. I held on to it like a trophy, as if it was a way of showing everyone that everything was back to “normal.” Four years later, I recently cut my hair very short, and it felt so empowering to have that control back. I can honestly say now “It’s only hair” and know that I have all the power and strength to make such a drastic change just because I want to. I wish you all the best! Stay strong, and stay in touch! – Angela