Two weeks. Until Friday, December 3. That was the estimated lifespan of my hair, according to my chemo doctor.
I used to shrug off the hair loss that was a guarantee with my cancer treatment. It will grow back, I told myself. It’s not like it is permanent, like a mastectomy. And I get to try out having better hair than my own. How bad could it be? But as I got closer to that two-week mark after my first chemo treatment, saying and hearing, “it would grow back,” became more and more of a sour statement.
The more people who told me that, the more bothered I would get. I know they were trying to help. But it made me feel like they were saying I didn’t have anything to be upset about.
Increasingly I thought about two breast cancer survivors I spoke with. They told me losing their hair was the hardest thing about their treatment. And that statement was coming from two people who had double mastectomies. People who had to wake up from their surgeries with no breasts.
I imagined walking by the bathroom mirror in the morning hairless. I’d never seen myself without hair. I envisioned this large, bald, egg-shaped head some of the people in my family have. Wow, that could really depress me for an entire morning. More and more, hair loss didn’t seem like a tiny hurdle to jump over. It seemed like a giant brick wall where I couldn’t see the other side. And that side could last as long as nine or ten months with the pause in chemo I would take when the baby was born.
As the two weeks got closer, my sister cut my hair real short on Thanksgiving. I figured it would be less disturbing to pull out handfuls of short hair than long hair. I made her fix the cut like five times, trying to see if I could like it just right. Her boyfriend was falling asleep at the table, waiting for the hair cut to finish to go home. He didn’t say anything. His eyes just got droopier and droopier. Sorry.
My preparations continued. I borrowed clippers. I bought six hats from the cancer society’s online site. I only liked one when they came in the mail. I had my wig trimmed. I didn’t like it suddenly. It just looked so much like a wig to me and not my hair.
I finally started to like my new short hair days before the two-week mark. Great, I thought. Just in time for it to go. Steve walked by one night and ran his fingers through it. Usually having my hair stroked is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. This time I snapped, “Do you want to make it fall out sooner!?” Wow, it was getting to me.
Maybe it won’t happen, I started to think. Nothing has changed so far. My mom tells me my aunt only lost half of her hair with a similar treatment. Maybe my pregnancy hormones will help keep the hair on my head.
Then the day before the two-week mark, I wake up and notice my scalp aches where I slept on it the night before. By Saturday morning, my scalp aches in places where I didn’t sleep. No hair seems to be coming out. But Saturday night, as I remove a barrette from my hair, a few strands leave with it. That is not normal. I run my fingers through that area. A few more strands fall.
It has begun.
From hearing others’ stories, I know there will come a time when I can run my fingers through my hair and get not just a few strands but a clump of hair. My wig consultant told me about the time her 4-yr-old daughter, who had cancer, was playing outside in a strong breeze. She could see the wind blowing the hair off her head. I think I’m going to hold off on the shaving party till I get a little closer to that.
It is really windy Sunday. The wind blows my hair up, down and around as I stand outside and struggle with Naomi’s car seat buckles. The movement hurts my scalp. That night I can pull five strands or more with each swipe of my hand through my hair.
There is no hair on my pillow Monday morning. But I can comb out several strands in some areas of my scalp. On Tuesday morning I usually get about 5-10 strands with each comb of the hair. I start wearing a hat.
By Thursday morning, the hair doesn’t stop coming out. Each time I pull out anywhere from 2 to as many as 35 strands of hair. I spend most of the morning doing this, wondering if it will end.
The kids are running around doing whatever, spilling their cereal, eating each other’s cereal, spilling their orange juice, screaming, making me pictures. A Scooby Doo video plays all morning long. Fortunately, it keeps repeating once it stops. This is not our usual routine at all. I thought I would take the kids somewhere. But I just don’t feel like it. I’ve promised to make them new pirate swords from spray paint, glue, paint sticks & popsicle sticks that they can decorate. This offer seems to satisfy them enough. I keep thinking the hair will stop coming out. It doesn’t. I fill one small trash can 2 inches high with hair. I realize this means I should warm the clippers up soon. But my hair mostly just looks flat still. Maybe I can get a few more days before the bald morning mirror trip.
After I put Henry down for a nap, I let Naomi play beauty salon on my hair. She tries to put this 3-year-old headband on my head. She forces it on. The band is so tight and irritating. I pull it off and hair rains down. Then she starts combing my hair. More hair rains down. I try to gather it up to not make such a mess.
When will I shave it? Tonight? Can I wait till tomorrow?
It’s 4:30pm. I realize I’ve wasted an entire day and more obsessing over my hair. I don’t want to waste another day. It has to happen tonight. Henry wakes up, and I remember their grandpa is coming soon to get them to spend the night. Tomorrow we're supposed leave at 7:30 am to get my second chemo dose. I wanted Naomi to watch if she wanted to. She says she does. Steve won’t be home till late. So I will have to do it right now. I take the kids upstairs to the bathroom. I grab some scissors and a couple of Naomi’s ponytail holders. I’m praying I can do it without crying in front of her. I can’t cry in front of her. That would be a horrible experience for her.
Henry is still in a bad mood from his nap. He is screaming about everything and running around. It's no wonder since I practically ignored him all day. He asks me for something about every 30 seconds – to wash his hands, to put on his pirate costume, to get a drink of water, to put his pirate hat back on, to reach his new pirate sword. Naomi teases him some. It doesn’t help the screaming.
Meanwhile I’m trying to section off some of my hair into this tiny ponytail to cut off in one chop. Okay, I’m going to do it, Naomi, I say. I pause. I can't believe this moment is here. Then I press down on the scissors. They are so dull it takes a couple chops to get through the hair. I turn to look at Naomi. She is busy making Henry scream about something. She didn’t see anything.
Do you really want to watch? I ask her. She says no then yes. So I ready another ponytail. Both ponytails have been from underneath the top of my hair where the cuts aren’t so noticeable. As I start to close the scissors, Naomi flinches and says, “No.” Henry is screaming again. I have no clue what is about this time. The screams echo in the tile-covered bathroom and make it hard for me to think. I hack through the ponytail slowly again, show Naomi and realize I can’t do this anymore. What a disaster. I’ve heard about people having parties to shave their head. This is anything but that. I can’t do it with the kids alone.
Their grandpa picks them up. I return to the mirror. I want to attend my writing group that night; but I don’t want to wonder about how much hair is falling on my shoulders as I sit there. So I decide I’m going to do it alone.
I cry and cry until my eyes are swollen and red, and my nose is filled with snot. Then I play two Regina Spektor songs on my iPhone: “I cut off my hair” and “Samson.” Her songs are not really about anything, she says. But they both have lines about cutting someone’s hair all off. They calm me down, and I start chopping. It is too hard with the dull scissors so I fetch my Cutco kitchen shears. That does the trick. It gets easier with each chop. I realize I’m living a 5-year-old dream of giving myself my own haircut. The job looks like a 5-year-old did it too. That’s ok. The razor will take care of that. Next I run the razor all over my head, leaning over a trash can to make a little less mess. I finally finish.
I’m feeling angry. What a disaster this whole process was. It was anything but planned out. There was no party. Not that I think I would have handled a party well. I put on this shirt that makes me look like I have tattoos all over my chest and back and up and down my arms. The shirt echoes my feelings. I imagine myself looking like a stormy punk rocker, except I need about ten more piercings on my face instead of the zero I have to really complete the look.
I stare at my head. There are a few thin and bald patches, and the hair isn’t evenly shaved since I held the razor at different angles. But I actually have quite a bit of stubble on my head. I don’t cry. I actually feel relieved, like a huge burden has finally been removed. It is done. The wall is gone. I can move on. And it will grow back, I remember with no ill feelings.
Then I make another pleasant discovery. My head is not shaped like an egg.