Hair is such a dramatic symbol in the cancer world. It separates many of the haves from the have-nots. It starts out as simply an unnecessary accessory that (we tell ourselves) is sure to grow back. In the grand scheme of things, hair is not a high priority.
But then it becomes a measure of success, of health and prosperity. Bald is beautiful, except it doesn't always feel so pretty when you don't choose it.
We all crave normalcy - not being average, but feeling as though we belong, a sense of security in the known-ness of our lives. Losing your hair (and I do mean ALL of your hair) as a side effect is more powerful than you might think. Your mental state is greatly affected by your appearance (ever watched What Not To Wear?), and having to see yourself looking so dramatically different has the power to make you feel dramatically different. Bottom line: similar to most of cancer's side effects, it sucks.
I had assumed, during treatment, that when I was finished and declared in remission that I would grow my hair out, and in another year, things would all be back to normal. I remember seeing all different aspects of my life this way (at the time): once the cancer was gone, so would the cancer experience die with it. I asked my oncologist repeatedly, "when can we start trying to conceive again?" And his response was always the same, "the day you finish radiation. go home, have a glass of wine and enjoy."
But then that day came. And life was so uncertain, I suddenly realized, there was no safe way to get pregnant that quickly.
How could I have a scan to tell me I'm cancer free? (I couldn't)
How much more complicated could my health become if I start having symptoms again while pregnant? (very)
What if, (heaven forbid) I relapsed during pregnancy and was forced to endure treatment? (according to my onc, patients treated with chemo during 2nd and 3rd trimesters do fine and the babies are no worse for the wear - how the heck is that possible??).
All too scary.
And growing my hair or making any plans for the future is the same. What if it grows and grows and then I relapse and have to lose it all over again? (think PTSD) Thus, it took a good 6 months after treatment for me to be willing to let my hair grow. In a coincidental twist of events, it actually took my hairdresser being on maternity leave for me to stop cutting it.
I remember reading an article many months ago (that I cannot for the life of me locate). The author described needing courage to grow out your hair, courage to do something that *may* be all for nought. Not everyone agrees. Dana Jennings says, "In letting my hair grow, I’m acknowledging to the world that I’m finally emerging from the life-changing chrysalis of cancer. It’s a gesture of optimism, a way to define — and refine — my postcancer self."
I bounce back and forth. My hair has definitely grown since last year. As my hairdresser (now returned from her leave) says, I have a "shitload" of hair. It's thick and dark and has many more cowlicks than pre-chemo. But I do not complain about it for one second. This hair keeps my head warm. And it gives me the appearance of someone who is not a cancer patient. Perhaps that's the strangest juxtaposition for me: looking (mostly) normal on the outside, but feeling so changed, permanently scarred on the inside.
Yesterday was my official 1 year cancerversary. One year ago today, I heard the words from both my radiation oncologist and my onc's NP: "looks good," and "home run". I was fresh from a massage and in the parking lot of the grocery store, a moment of pure relief and oxygen. Today, my attitude is a mixed bag. By george, I am happy to be alive. Still staring at a blinking yellow light: proceed (with caution).