A Woman’s Dilemma: What to Do about My Hair?

by NotDownOrOut

My hair has been a trooper. The oncologists predicted I would be bald in week three of chemotherapy. I am not bald yet and this is the third month since I began chemotherapy. My last chemotherapy session was December 21st. I still have hair. I can work with that.

The hair on my lower torso was quick to jump ship. Two lone hairs remained on one leg until this month. My underarms were bare soon afterward. Even the five or six tiny hairs that once grew on the tops of my big toes have been gone for a long time. I can work with that.

Those pesky hairs on the upper lip and chin disappeared–except the white ones that can grow too long. They hung on for much longer, contributing to my feeling that cancer aged me. I shaved them off.

Then came the arm hairs. One morning I washed in the shower and noted their persistence. I was alarmed that night to see that every last one of them was gone in the same day.

In recent weeks I have noticed that I am down to a few eyelashes. I can work with that. I use an eyebrow pencil to fill in bald patches in my eyebrows.

My hair on my head has thinned very gradually. There were no bald patches. I can work with that. I washed it once a week no matter how much I longed to keep it cleaner. I fed it vitamins and selenium. I combed it gently once a day. I ignored the widening part on my left side and in the back–symbols of the more substantial “parting” to come. I watched as the gray hairs fell first, a phenomenon that I thought of as “God’s gentle touch-up.”

At one point I cut an inch off of my bob because the ends looked scraggly. This week I cut my hair to about one inch, a little longer on the right side of my part. It’s not an attractive cut. When I awaken, my hair is standing up and I look like I have survived a bout with cancer or like my hairdresser lacks a license (I do not have a license to cut hair).

I first tried the red wig. My hair is dishwater blonde, sometimes light brown. It has not been color treated since August. In my home, under gentle lighting, I loved the fire. I recently heard that red heads get more sex than blondes, challenging the notion that blondes have more fun. I am not interested in their fun, but their bold coloring seemed so much more encouraging than any familiar hair color. I longed to display that spirit as I faced my life’s most serious challenge to date (cancer, not hair loss). It is a Raquel Welch wig. I like the way it is made. It fits fine. The style is sassy. My hair is straight and fine. This wig has waves and looks tossed by a gentle breeze. This is the most fun that I have had since my cancer diagnosis. I feel brave in it. I look different.

When I got to school on Thursday night and saw it under the bathroom’s stark white bulbs, I thought of Lucille Ball and was worried. I resolved to enjoy it anyway. I never chose it to resemble me. I chose it because I am changing and, after months of feeling like a caterpillar with tufts of hair (gray, then blonde, then brown), I longed for some of the butterfly’s beauty, even if I had to borrow it.

Students were kind. I think most people are kind. One fellow cancer survivor even told me about a procedure by which eyelashes are attached to the eyelid even if you have no lashes of your own. I won’t be pursuing that procedure, but it is good to know that there are ways to handle losses any individual finds hard to bear.

I tried the blonde wig with red highlights on Friday. It is an asymmetrical bob. On one side the hair comes down in a long curl a la Nicki Minaj. The long curl is too much for everyday wear. I want to clip it off, but wore it anyway because a bold bird preens over its colorful feathers. This wig never quite sat correctly on my head. It rode up in the back, producing that conehead effect some wigs have. The long curl tickled my chin like Rip Van Winkle’s beard. My law students urged me not to clip it. One students suggested a color like pink. Candy colors are so cheerful.

As soon as I returned to my car, I dragged off the wig and ignored my own misgivings about the remnants of my hair. Hair is not much different than clothing after a couple of days spent in a wig. My hair is comfortable, like sweat pants or pajamas. It does not matter to me that it looks so foreign. It is still my hair. Moreover, as my hair has fallen out, I have had an opportunity to pluck so many of its strands from coats, sweaters, blouses, and pillows, that I feel like I have said goodbye to it more than a thousand times. I am long, long, long past crying as we bid each other farewell.

What remains is like me, I guess. It is stubborn. It stays even when it is no longer welcome. I may cut it down to size, but cannot “bare” to shave it off. The truth is that, while my hair is not the important loss it is for many other women, it is me, too. It remains welcome even as I shed parts of me that I no longer want (cancer) or need (chin hairs).

I would not be honest if I did not admit that I tied on a wool neck scarf before picking up a sandwich at a drive-thru on my way home. The scarf reminded me of a babushka (a friend said that term is out-of-date, I should call it a do-rag). It was better than the sight of my hair, which shot up in a million, make that a thousand, make that a dozen, oh, maybe just five directions. Change can be difficult. I have changed in many ways that have caused more tears than this change.

Like the other changes, I intend to handle this one with courage and a little smile. Smile with me and it will be fine. As I said before, I think most people are kind. I can work with that.