So I’m addicted to Top 10/20/100/500 lists. Every time Rolling Stone magazine lists top x amount hip hop songs or albums of the rock era or guitarists, I’m all over it. When VH-1 shows top one hit wonders of the 90s or whatever, I tune in, even if I’ve seen it before. So the other day I was watching for the umpteenth time top shocking moments in music—you know, like that time Ozzy bit the head off a dove, or when R. Kelly got arrested for sex with a minor, and all the horrible deaths of icons. Of course, high on this list is that time Britney Spears left rehab and went directly on to shave her head, and then a few days later, attack a photographer with something (an umbrella maybe?) looking especially crazy with that bald head.
I thought, man, when I shaved my head after my second chemo infusion, I wish I’d had the energy to reenact that scene, maybe record it, put it on Youtube. In fact, a friend of mine, in an effort to cheer me up when I called him to say “well, my head is shaved,” said, “good, come over and let’s reenact that time Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on SNL.” If I had not been so nauseous all the time, I totally would have done it. I LOVE to rip pieces of paper in half and yell dramatically (still do, but now I have hair). Lots of my lesbian acquaintances loved my G.I. Jane look, and the gay men loved it too. One man rubbed my head and said joyously, “you look like a little boy!” Argh, flashback to kindergarten, my mother always kept my fine, thin hair short, and a little boy said to me one day, “you look like a little boy!” I cried and cried (give me a break, I was 4). The man’s words sent me spinning back to that awful moment for a split second, until it dawned on me “oh wait, this is a compliment, he likes my boyish new look.” Yeah, that was definitely one of my stranger cancer moments.
As I progressed from little kid to teen, my fine, thin hair became coarse, curly to the point of bushy-like so I kept it long to weigh down and eliminate some of the curl. It was half way down my back in college, and as I grew older, I kept it trimmed, but a strange thing happened. It seemed to get to my shoulders, and stop growing. No matter how long I went without a trim, it just refused to get any longer, to get back to my college era glorious length. I worried as my hair returned after cancer if my hair would do that reach-a-point-and-stop thing again. And I desperately need the length. When my hair finally reached the 2-4 inches length, I began to resemble Willy Wonka-era Gene Wilder. I’m a bit past that with the hair growth now, but it is not as long as it was when I shaved it, and it is still very curly. I look forward to that going away.
Hair is a big deal in cancer world. Some women fear the loss of their hair more than the loss of their breast(s). Not I, but that’s another post. I heard a lot of “it’s just hair, your health is more important, so you have to endure it to get the healing chemo” type of comments. For me, the issue wasn’t the actual hair, it was what it meant: my normal, pre-cancer, healthy life. Before cancer, the first thing I did each morning as I woke up was throw it into a ponytail to keep it out of my face as I made coffee, walked the dog, etc. After I shaved it, each morning I sleepily reached up to put my hair in a ponytail, and was immediately shocked into the reality of “I have cancer”. Without my hair, it was like I never had even a split second of respite from the knowledge of cancer and my mortality.
The unruliness of my freshly re-grown hair, along with numerous other marks and pains residing in and on my body, are constant reminders of what happened to me, and the fact that it might happen again, and if and when it does, that it might kill me. I did my best at the time to be lighthearted about it, to joke that I’d become Britney, Sinead, and Demi, but as I got further along in treatment and the “whole cancer thing”, my sense of humor about it diminished. Well, my sense of socially acceptable humor, anyway—I still like tumor humor, but some folks, especially those not directly involved with cancer, don’t like it. So thanks to all y’all who make “you look great” comments about the newly shaved cancer patient’s ‘do, but remember some patients don’t like the look, and I don’t think you’d be willing to shave your head unless you had to.
P.S. Attention Film Industry, Hollywood: When you make a movie including a character with cancer, it’s “nice” they shave their heads (ahem, being a tiny bit sarcastic here). But understand that chemo causes HAIR LOSS, not BALD HEAD. That means all hair. Yes all of it. Even the hair on your special place and your eyebrows. So at least have actors thin out the eyebrows for crying out loud. I’m looking at you Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50) and Emma Thompson (Wit). Both great actors (I love you Joe!), but grow a pair and really show us hair loss. And you should probably keep your pants on for the role.