When I was first diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, I was forty years old with a daughter in kindergarten and a son in second grade. A stage 2 cancer diagnosis usually indicates the cancer has spread from the original tumor site to another part of the body. At that time, metastasized breast cancer in a younger patient meant that chemotherapy was part of the treatment protocol. Clarity of what matters most comes into sharp focus after a diagnosis of cancer. My main goal was to survive long enough to see my children through to adulthood. Killing the cancer cells in my body would require a team of experienced doctors and a researched-based plan of attack. Many important decisions needed to be made along the way. What to do about my hair loss wasn’t one of those decisions.
Within the first two cycles of infusion, cancer patients must decide whether or not to shave their heads. If left unshaved, their hair will fall out slowly over the duration of the treatment. Complete hair loss was a given. Early on in my diagnosis, I remember many women expressing the loss of hair as being one of the most dramatic side-effects of chemo. They felt less feminine, less attractive. Given the whirlwind of appointments, tests, and surgeries, losing my hair was of minimal concern.
I made an appointment at a hair salon that specialized in shaving cancer patients’ heads. If I was going to go bald, I wanted to own it. I wanted to enjoy the freedom from hair maintenance. On the day of my appointment, my stylist escorted my husband and me to a private room. He snapped on a smock, turned on his electric clippers and began the slow process of removing my shoulder length hair in long rows from front to back like a lawnmower cutting an overgrown lawn. I watched in the mirror, not afraid or sad, just curious. What would I look like without hair? Would my head look huge? Would my ears stick out? Would my nose seem extra big?
By the end, my blond hair covered the tiled floor, and to my surprise, my hairless head looked just fine without my golden locks. As my husband and I walked to our car after the appointment, I told him that I understood why men liked buzz cuts. The cool mid March air blew across the exposed crown of my head, and I found the new experience stimulating and refreshing. I couldn’t stop rubbing the downy hair follicles much like when my tongue darted back and forth across the smoothness of my front teeth after my braces had been removed.
Eventually, I lost all of my hair, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. I didn’t try to conceal my hair loss with scarves or silly hats. I loved the boldness of being so naked and exposed. In addition, it was my way of saying, I don’t buy into society’s objectification of the female body. The beauty of my body lies in its resilience and tolerance to endure this hellish treatment.
This year, thirteen years after my initial diagnosis, my youngest daughter is a freshman in college. My heart is full with gratitude. I am blessed by the small beautiful moments and the big milestones my life has gifted me.
I don’t miss much about the months I endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but every now and then, I do miss my shaved head and the boldness it instilled in me to Own It!