India.Arie sings about hair being her crowning glory. Willow Smith whips hers. There is an entire musical about it. Even bands like Rush, Nirvana, and America sing about our obsession with hair. I am no different. I am obsessed. But my hair and I have a complicated history of love and loss.
It was a warm night in May of 2007 and my phone was ringing. As I was reached for it I realized my doctor's number was blinking on my caller ID. I picked it up without it even registering that a call at 8pm on a Monday night from your surgeon is probably not good news. But I answered cheerfully never expecting that the conversation that was about to take place would change my life - forever.
"Jennifer, It's Dr. Adams calling. I'm very surprised to make this call to you but I have your biopsy results and I'm sorry but you do have a small cancer."
"Oh. Crap. Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure"
"Ummm, okay. Small cancer. But it's not breast cancer because it doesn't run in my family so it's something else, right?"
"No, the tumor we removed was in your breast so yes, in fact you do have breast cancer."
"Oh. Will I lose my hair?"
Here I am, having just heard the words that no one ever wants to hear. I'm facing my own mortality. Will I fight or will I surrender? Will I opt for the most aggressive or least invasive treatment? I didn't know yet but what I immediately worried about was my hair, my beautiful hair. It's dark brown, thick, shiny, and in 2007 it hung in fat loose curls halfway down my back. I always loved my hair ... even when I said otherwise. When it began falling out several weeks later at the mercy of the drugs being pumped into my body to keep me alive, I was completely bereft. It was only at the insistence of my chemo nurse, I went to a salon and had my hair cut into an absolutely hideous short style. She explained it would be easier for me to lose short hair rather than my long hair.
Ummm, no. It wasn't any easier.
And while the hair loss happened gradually I vividly remember the first time I really looked in the mirror at my bare head, eyebrow-less face and lash-less eyes thinking, "it's official, I am a cancer patient. No turning back. No running away. I HAVE ARRIVED!"
I felt like a blank slate, it was a total loss of identity. I quickly realized I was not a wig chick and mostly ran around in funky tweed caps and bandanas decorated with skulls and crossbones. My youngest son, then nine, stated "I looked so cool, like a pirate!" And on the days I would get despondent about my hair situation, I would remind myself that for a little while, I traded my hair for my life.
Once treatment was completed all I could think about was how to grow it back. I was obsessed with vitamins. I examined my scalp every single day. Eventually it grew in, first white (YIKES!) then it darkened, then well, henna took over! But, the hair that grew in was not mine. I'm not quite sure whose it was but it was completely different than the hair I had known and loved for some thirty-something years. It was fine, mousy, and so tightly curled that if I didn't take the time to blow it out I would look like a clown. I wanted my hair back. MY hair. So I went nearly three years without so much as a trim. I wanted to get back what I had lost. Eventually, my hair grew long enough to satisfy me; and though it was radically different, so was I.
As I was busily writing my book, Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? I was also a frequent guest speaker at cancer support centers, schools, and health fairs as a young survivor who did not conform nor subscribe to what people thought of when they thought of breast cancer. And no matter where I was or whom I was addressing, when it came time for questions the first one always asked was, "Did you lose your hair?"
Every. Single. Time.
I hit my five-year cancerversary and my book was published. I was immersed in promotional events and book signings, living the life of a not just a survivor but a thriver, when I was once again faced with the words, "Jennifer I'm sorry but you have cancer, again."
This time was going to be different. I had learned much about myself over the past five years. I knew at how strong I was mentally and physically and I knew this time I was going to remain in control. Once the pathology determined that I would indeed be taking another ride in the dreaded chemo chair I knew what I had to do. I booked both a haircut and a bilateral mastectomy without batting an eye. I left the salon beaming with a fantastic super-short punk-style. I had finally found a haircut that suited my personality. Then chemo began and my hair began it's exodus. I called my now teenage son into the bathroom and handed him the clippers. First just the sides (I sported a Mohawk for a couple of weeks) then completely off. And it was at that moment I felt truly fearless! I boldly accessorized. I was fierce. I took good care of my scalp every day massaging it with Argon oil and gently shampooing my fuzz with Mane 'N Tail. I waited, not so patiently, for my hair to grow in. And it did, but this time, to my delight, MY hair grew in. The hair I always had ... the hair I had missed!
Most people outside the cancer community are dumbfounded when I say it is almost more painful to hear you will lose your hair than it is to hear you have cancer. How could vanity play a starring role when you are fighting for your life? But if you take the time to sit in any chemo room, online support group or health fair the conversation will always come back to hair.
Are you a do-rag or wig gal? How did you tie your scarf like that? Where did you find the best hats? Does your wig itch? Mine makes me sweat. Where can I find a pink wig? How do you keep your hat from sliding around? How long does it take for hair to grow back? It's consuming. Why? I think because it is such an outward reflection of what you are going through, it puts your private pain on display for public consumption. And it's very hard to fake hair. Clothing can hide the scars. There are anti-nausea prescriptions can prevent you from throwing up at a school conference. You can artfully apply make-up to cover up that cancery pallor. But wigs look wiggy and hats are made to fit over your hair not to slide around on bare skin ... and don't even get me started on the turbans. Nope, I won't go there.
Books have been written, countless blogs have opined and Youtube videos have been filmed of women tearfully holding clippers as their partners or friends filmed them or perhaps jumped in too and did the solidarity shave. Lifetime has cornered the market on movies depicting the bald, despondent chemo patient barfing uncontrollably, unable to put away groceries or mother her children. But those are just snapshots and perceptions of the reality of being a warrior. Having traveled this road twice I will tell you the second time was both easier and harder than the first time. Easier because I knew what to expect. Harder because I knew what to expect. I've learned that you can choose how you want to fight. You can be bold and fearless clippers in hand. Or you can be all zen and peaceful, letting it fall out gently on it's own. It's all about what feels right for you. Having done it both ways taking control was much more empowering than being at the mercy of the three evil witches (Adriamycin, Taxol, and Cytoxan).
Today I am healthier, hairier, much more confident. Being bald gave me an in your face swagger. My hair no longer defines me and every day is a good hair day or at least a hair day. Every day I choose to survive and thrive.
***This piece was originally published in 2014 for Victorious Val & The Breast Cancer Crusaders