Trimming my hair: Taking charge during chemo chaos
Three years ago, I looked like a little baby bird. Or maybe more like a U.S. Marine recruit who just had their hair cut short by a barber who may have had one too many scotches.
After 18 months of chemo for stage II, HER2-positive breast cancer, little hairs started to poke through my bald head. Alas, they were as white as snow but, hey, it was hair! Some sprouted like wires on a stiff-bristled hairbrush. Then there were spots where hairs cast a white covering on my head like morning frost on grass after a cold night. And even though I was never shiny-Mr. Clean-bald, I was undeniably bald. I hated it. Some people told me they liked my new look. They “complimented” me by saying they thought I looked like a cool biker chick. I didn’t think this was flattering. Sure, since my breast cancer diagnosis I might kick your ass if you say the wrong thing to me, but I’m not a biker chick. I absolutely detested my new look. In fact, one Christmas during chemo my daughter bought me a beautiful grey turtleneck sweater. I mean, I was grateful, but when I tried it on you know what I looked like? A lightbulb.
Out of the approximately one thousand horrors chemo brought me — nausea, pain, depression, constipation, diarrhea, itchiness, pimples (yeah, pimples at age 65) — losing my hair may have topped the list of horrors. Some days I’d look in the mirror and scream at my reflection, “Ya old hag!” But on this one no-hair day, I was determined to do something about it. I just had my first radiation treatment after finally finishing chemo and I could not stand looking at the uneven buds slowly and unevenly springing from my head. So, in a flash of demented and counterintuitive brilliance, it came to me: it’s time for a trim.
With a towel wrapped around my neck, I gathered a chair and sharp scissors, and went out in my backyard. I leaned a stand-up mirror against my house and started to trim. That’s when the water works began. As I sat down in front of the mirror and tried to barber myself into somehow looking normal, reality hit me like a truck. I could hardly see through the tears. I burbled out loud: How the hell did I get in this mess?
Where did my beautiful, thick, curly dyed-from-a-bottle-brown hair go? Chemo took it. That dirty, rotten, son-of-a-life-saving-bastard chemo.
Words like anguish, sadness, and disgust didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. As I sobbed, I tried to keep trimming. My husband came out in the backyard and, summoning all the compassion and bravery he could muster, he asked, “What are you doing?” He heard me crying from inside the house — my poor husband. I could see in his eyes that he was suffering just as much as I was, if not more.
After being married to me for 5,000 years (approximately) and after almost two years of chemo, my husband knew not to say anything more. Besides, I knew how he felt: sad and helpless. He also knew I had to work it out in my own way. Uttering a simple “Okay,” he retreated into the house.
For another 20 minutes, I persisted in cutting, crying, and cursing. If any neighbors were outside, they probably thought I was losing my mind, and, in this, they would not have been entirely wrong. But this incident was not just about trimming my hair. It was about reclaiming my agency, that feeling of control over our actions and their consequences, that cancer had taken away. When people told me I was a brave warrior to endure four surgeries, and five months of chemo and radiation, I disagreed. I wasn’t brave. I was forced into it; if I wanted to live, that is. I had no agency. But the decision to trim my hair gave me a feeling of power, if only for a few minutes.
Then, as usual, after letting my emotions rip, I settled down. I did what I had been doing for the preceding year and a half. I put one exhausted foot in front of the other and tried to go about my day. It wasn’t easy, but what choice did I have? And, I must admit, my “hair” didn’t look too bad!
Sign up to receive emotional support, medical insight, personal stories, and more, delivered to your inbox weekly.