I am blessed with a head of thick, dark, hair, often long and usually straight. If there is a quick, low-maintenance way to wear it, I do, from a pony tail, to tucked up in a bun with a chopstick. In my 40s, as eager strands of silvery white wisp into the mix, I like the fun sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Ten years ago in treatment, I know chemotherapy, among other things, will go after cells that rapidly divide, including hair. When my hair begins to let loose in earnest, I hightail it to the local barber for a buzz cut. My head is not too big, not too small, no distracting lumps or bumps, scars or curious protuberances. Though I never pet a chinchilla, I keep thinking, goodness, this feels like a chinchilla, the diminutive South American mammal who can sprout up to 60 hairs per follicle! People I run into are compelled to ask if they can touch my head.
As treatment ensues, that lovely buzz cut falls away, too. And in time, my hair grows back, first curly, where I look like I am trying to mimic Paul’s signature coils, and then very much back to my own. Over this last decade of excellent health, I never have a bad hair day because I say, Well! It’s GOOD to have hair!
This time around I ask my oncologist if I might consider the cold cap, where you wear an ice cap during infusions to prevent chemo from reaching the scalp and therefore prevent all your hair from falling. But with leukemia, it’s not an option. First of all, because some of the chemo is given IV continuously over parts of a week, it’s not realistic to freeze your head for days on end. But more to the point, with leukemia, cancer cells can stealthily try to set up shop in the central nervous system, including the spine and brain, so we don’t want to curtail where the chemo reaches. This is also why during each cycle, some chemo is literally delivered into my spine via spinal tap, called intrathecal chemo.
Bottom line: I prepare to say goodbye to my hair again. Which brings me to my own vanity and another bit of a punch to the gut. Of course, all eyes are on the prize: surviving and thriving, post treatment. It’s not about how I look, or about my hair. That said, hair is fun for me, I love brushing my hair, I love braiding my hair, I love updos, and love feeling my long hair waving in the breeze when I rollerblade or bike or run or swirling sleek in water behind me when I swim. So here I arrive at the doorstep of another opportunity to let go, stay in the moment, focus on what’s essential. As a good friend says, what I, and many of us don’t need, is an AFGO. (Another Fucking Growth Opportunity!)
Of course, having this hair style also puts a big label across my chest—like Oh! There’s a woman with cancer.Which I hate. I hate labels, I hate pity. And I hate being reduced to a diagnosis. I know I shouldn’t care and that what people think doesn’t matter. That said, I am human. I have a life defined by so many beautiful relationships, experiences, values, and commitments, so when someone relegates me to a diagnosis or their imagination of what I might be experiencing, it is deflating and disheartening.
Here’s an invitation and a challenge for all of us. When you encounter someone with any kind of outward presentation that draws a label to your lips or your mind, do your best to imagine all the other ways you might appreciate that person’s reality beyond whatever narrow piece you have honed in on. Expand your imagination and recall every person’s life is layered and complex and likely a whole lot more compelling than any one or two-word definition you may have conjured! Let’s liberate ourselves from reductionist thinking and refrain from putting anyone in a diagnostic or otherwise-labeled box!
And with regard to my current buzz cut, it is a bit jarring. But, it’s also bold and brave, and like many things you might not consider, paradoxically liberating. If you ever think of trying out a buzz cut during treatment, or to support a friend going through cancer care, or strictly for a stylistic shake-up, here’s my advice: Go to someone who’s good with the clippers, then walk into the room you are going into with excellent posture, a big smile, and your mojo ON. There is no artifice whatsoever; you are exposed, and raw, and very real. Not a bad place to be.