Sunday, December 12, 2010


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.

Answer: No.

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.


  1. KJ, you are so strong and brave. I wish I was there to give you a hug. You are amazing. I love you and miss you. Keep on keeping on, tough girl. Prayers your way.

  2. Im crying. I thought you looked great at the holiday party. I guess that wasn't your hair. Noah on me now saying "I'm a good writer. Let me try." He doesn't notice I'm crying.

  3. KJ, I'm with Alisha - you are strong and brave. I'm inspired by you and the way you are handling all of this. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Sending lots of love your way. XO

  4. When you mention your anger and your shirt with all the tattoos, it brought to the front of my mind the anger I have. My sister is going through her second time with breast cancer and I'm more angry this time around since she's the healthiest person I know. So I wanted to express my anger, I'm not brave enough to shave my head for her chemo treatments, but I got pink highlights and will keep them bright until her treatments are done. Thank you for sharing your emotional journey. She is keeping a blog this time around and you might have the link, from a round about way, but if not it's

  5. I love you.
    I'm sure this is the last thing you feel like hearing right now (or at least it would be fore me) but my dad has been working with a filmmaker who made a movie about alternative approaches to healing and how positive attitude and emotions,etc..can heal people. He produced "The Living Matrix: The New Science of Health. I haven't watched it, but my dad seems very impressed by it.
    I'm sending many positive feelings to you and in to the universe and prayers as well. Hope to see you soon. xo

  6. sweet kj - you are a woman of courage! i'm sending you positive vibes and praying for you. another bit of science (and now i wish i had noted this when i found it. i'll dig around and forward to you...) the study: positive vibes and negative vibes and their effect on plants. and like the prayer research, it turns out sending positive vibes even aids plants. i love it when science backs faith. add my positive energy to the ocean of positive energy headed your way.

  7. I admire the way you can really share your feelings, painful though they may be. You accurately described how losing your hair does not hurt physically that much, but the same can not be said about the psychological impact. I was surprised to hear about your situation as well. We will keep your sweet young family in our prayers.

  8. *hugs* I've been wondering how you were doing. I'll have to get you some of those cute hairbands that babies wear. Unless you'd rather I didn't, of course.

    Still keeping you in my prayers, though.
    *more hugs*

  9. I'm wiping tears from eyes too - you are so strong to write about this and share your feelings. I hope you know you have an army standing with you. I am a knitter by the way and would love to knit you a hat of your choice if you have something in mind :) There are literally hundreds of patterns! Just let me know if you like lacy, beret, cables, your wish is my command!

  10. I am truly awed by you. No matter what you write about, you say it so beautifully. You are really an amazing person!

  11. How raw and real this post is, my friend. Thank you for telling me the truth about the whole experience - screaming children and all. It makes me cry and hurt and yet feel this sense of pride in your ability to live it and write it and be in charge of it. I wish you didn't have to go through this.

  12. Kathy - not only did you look gorgeous at the holiday party but you rocked it on the dance floor. That was so fun and you are amazing.


  13. Thank you for giving away a piece of your story today. It lightens your burden and reminds us to relate and not be idiots: "it'll grow back" Today I've learned instead to say: "Feel your feelings."

  14. KJ - you are truly amazing. You are brave. You are strong. You are amazing. You are real. I am in awe of you & how you are handling this. My heart hurts that I am not closer to help you in some even small way. I am always thinking of you - praying for you. And if anyone can rock a bald head, I am confident it is you, my beautiful friend. :)

  15. It seems like I should wish this away on your behalf or be sad somehow, but mostly what I'm getting from your posts is that this is your real life right now and that you are determined to live every minute of it to the fullest-whether it be the fullest joy or the fullest sorrow. That's the definition of living and I applaud your approach to this whole experience. You're never far from our hearts or prayers, friend.

  16. thanks, kathy, for sharing your experience with such honesty. did i know that losing your hair in this way would physically hurt? i did not. but i know for me, it would feel like losing part of my identity. i hurt for you and admire your courage at the same time.