It was almost like any other day, my thirty-third birthday. With everything going on, I had almost forgotten about it all together. We had invited a friend and his kids over to the house to order pizza and play that day, completely forgetting that it was a special day. I was anticipating my second round of chemotherapy, and this was the first week since my first treatment that I was actually feeling good enough to socialize. Of course, I always put on a smile, stood up straight and denied feeling like complete shit, and to the casual observer I’m sure I “looked fantastic.” Underneath it all, I felt sick, tired, and defeated.
The kids were laughing and playing with their friends, Carson and Truman, each boy staggered in age between four and seven. They were good buddies. We met one day through mutual friends and the boys clicked instantly. Their parents were Jen and Bill, and we clicked with them almost as well as the boys. The men laughed and talked in loud, raucous voices about the Minnesota Vikings, lawn care, and politics. I sat quietly on the couch gazing out the window from time to time, catching a glimpse of the four boys and marveling at their ability to create a natural hierarchy.
As I sat on the couch in my short-sleeved top, I began to notice an unusual sensation on my arms. It was a slight tickling sensation, the kind of feeling you would imagine a feather would give if it were to casually graze your skin. I ignored it at first, and at some point thought, what the hell? I looked down and saw it, long, beautiful strands of black hair covering the creamy, white skin of my bare arms. It took a moment for it to register.
I had just visited my oncologist a week earlier, and because it had been three weeks since my first treatment, he declared that I wouldn’t be losing my hair because I would have already lost it. I remember feeling nothing but relief at hearing this prediction from the man in the white coat. He knew everything, right?
“Brandon!” I exclaimed in a rather large panic.
With a look of surprise, and a complete and total halt in conversation about Obamacare, I had my husband’s full attention. “What is it?” he answered.
“My hair, it’s falling out.”
He came over to check on me, and just before he could park himself next to me to offer comfort, I reached up and grabbed a fistful of my thick, dark hair. I pulled gently and the hair came out in a large, ungraceful clump. Brandon’s friend Bill looked surprised and allowed us to have our moment.
Though I anticipated it initially, my doctor’s upbeat tone as he announced I would not be losing my hair allowed this moment to completely shock and horrify me. So many thoughts began crowding into my mind’s landscape. The first thing I thought about was my boys, my two precious, innocent boys. They knew their momma was sick, they knew it was called cancer, and they knew momma had to take special medicine that would make her feel yucky.
We presented the cancer by referring to me as Cancer Girl. I was a superhero, sent to take on the evil cancer and banish it forever. They were satisfied with this, and it gave us a way to make light of the situation. I protected them throughout my treatment by keeping my emotions in check and by practicing that age-old southern tradition of putting on my best me. I refused to let them see me break down in tears from the fear of sickness and death, I refused to let them see me throw-up, and I refused to let them see me without life in my eyes. However, I was instantly aware that I wouldn’t be able to hide this. No, they would see their momma with a bald head. I knew when the hair started coming out by the fistful that they would not see thinning hair, but the shiny, clean look of a bald head on their mother. Just when all of the realization was sinking in, I heard the slam of the screen door and the boisterous clammer of little boys come roaring in.
“Here, mommy!” Steven said as he handed me a crumpled, warm, yellow and green handful of dandelions.
“Oh, thank you!” I replied with a slight smile, trying desperately to keep my voice from cracking with emotion.
I had that familiar lump in my throat, that lump a mommy has to swallow from time to time to protect children from grown-up problems. It was such a large lump that it actually hurt to swallow this time. My eyes ached from the tears that were desperate to fall, but through it all, I maintained composure.
“Guess what, guys?” I asked.
“What?” they replied, with a quizzical look and a furrowed brow.
“Mommy’s medicine is making her hair fall out! Isn’t that funny?” It was certainly hard to see the humor in it for my husband and me, but the boys came over to try to get a better look at Cancer Girl. I showed them how I was able to gently pull it out, and made the executive decision to ask them if they wanted to try. Steven shyed away with a puzzled look on his face, but Julian stepped forward and nodded his head.
“Go ahead and pull a little out,” I told him. He reached up to my head and gently grabbed a handful. He pulled slowly and giggled when he saw it come out in his hand.
“Pretty cool, huh?” their daddy said.
Julian reached up without asking and grabbed another little bit of the hair. His sweet little “Julian” giggle echoed through the living room again as the hair came out in his hand. Steven and the other two boys stood watching, mouths agape. We had a good laugh about it for a few more minutes before the bos decided to return to their outdoor adventures.
My husband stayed next to my side to offer comfort, but I was beginning to worry about making our guest feel awkward. I assured him I was fine, and I walked into the bathroom to take a look at myself.
I stood at the mirror, a place I often go to for comfort. For me, gazing into a mirror is like having a twin sister with whom I can share all of my greatest worries, fears, and triumphs. I looked at her today, and she didn’t look much different. I looked more intently into those green eyes, and I squinted to make sure I still recognized her. The mossy, green eyes intensified as tears began to fill them. I looked through the tears and she was still there. The me I have always known.
“It’s ok…it’s ok…it’s ok,” I whispered repeatedly to myself. I breathed harder knowing that the me I had always seen would soon look vastly different. I picked up my favorite purple paddle brush and through sobs, brushed as much of my hair out as I could. I couldn’t figure out how I had gotten here; it all seemed like a dream, or rather, a nightmare.
It has been a couple of years, and I now have a head-full of shiny, healthy dark-brown hair, but not many people can understand the depth of emotion a woman feels when she loses her hair. For some, it is a badge of honor they proudly display to the world to show their heroism. For others, such as me, it is a daily reminder of the sickness, the sadness, and the life that cancer tried to take from my kids. I was hoping to keep my hair so I could look at that girl in the mirror everyday and forget for just a moment that I was sick.
It seems a small sacrifice to make to keep your life, don’t you think? This was a question posed by a handful of well-meaning onlookers I heard more than once when I would complain about not having hair. Must be nice to just throw on a wig before you go out, rather than have to style your hair, was another. No, m’am, I would much rather style my hair than wear this ratty, sweaty, itchy wig. My hair was my “pretty thing.” My hair made me feel confident. My hair made me look healthy. It’s not always about vanity, but thank you, lady at the grocery store check-out, for your insightful comments.
Later that night on my thirty-third birthday, after our friends had gone, we concluded my birthday celebration by crowding into the kitchen as my husband buzzed off what was left of my hair. I had allowed myself to break down in the bathroom, privately, and it was time to become Cancer Girl once again. We laughed together as the hair fell down like a chocolate waterfall. After it was gone, the boys smiled and laughed.
Julian came over to offer comfort in the form of a hug and said, “mommy, your hair looks pretty. Now, everyone will know you’re Cancer Girl!”
I will certainly never forget this birthday, the day my hair fell out. It is a memory forever etched in my mind, each detail and each word. This was the day I had to look my illness in the face.