The haircut is one of the many milestones of cancer
My hair had been falling out for weeks. The medical oncologist warned me that my hair would fall out with Taxol, the chemo drug of choice for my HER2+ breast cancer. During our consultation, he made note of my long hair and suggested that I cut it short before my first infusion so that my transition from a head full of long locks to bald or nearly bald head wouldn’t be so traumatizing for my children. But as he looked at me I knew he meant that I should cut my hair so it wouldn’t be so traumatizing for me.
My husband loved my long hair. He liked running his hands through it when we stood with my head on his chest. I had taken to having fun with my hair and letting my stylist, Julina, do whatever she wanted and she always came up with the best color and styles for me. I had grown up in a conservative home and my mom liked things orderly so my hair stayed in the same dark ponytail through high school and college. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I found great joy in playing with my hair and dying it pink and purple one month and a beautiful red the next.
Just as the pandemic started to rear it’s ugly head and we were getting warnings to limit contact and begin social distancing I went in for my last haircut. I had intended to bring my 11 year old daughter and make it fun and less startling. But with the social distancing guidelines I left her home. My husband ran his hands through my hair one last time before I kissed him goodbye and left for my appointment.
When I met Julina at the salon she was surprised we weren’t going to color it and give it a fun and funky shade. I told her I was coming in for a short cut. Knowing my affinity for fun colors and long locks she looked at me concerned and said, “Honey, really? Why?” And that’s when the tears started rolling. I told her that I was diagnosed with breast cancer and that my hair was going to fall out shortly and I asked if could she give me short cut.
We weren’t supposed to touch, much less hug and she yet she did it anyway. She pulled me in and let me cry. We walked to her chair and we talked about the style and as I always did I told her to have fun with it. My tears had stopped and we chatted about our kids and the craziness of the pandemic as she draped the cloth around my shoulders. And then she warned me and said, “I’m cutting it now, are you ready?” I said, “Yes,” and really it was “No.” I heard the snip and the tears started again and continued through the session. As I cried, she cried with me. It wasn’t about the hair. We weren’t grieving the hair because as she reminded me, “Hair grows back. And when you come back we will make you a platinum blond and we’ll do alllll the fun colors.” We were grieving the diagnosis and the uncertainty.
Julina did not cut my hair to the scalp. She gave me a cute short cut with long bangs. She donated my hair to a local organization that made wigs for children. I had meant to ask her to do it, but in my grief, I had forgotten. I’m so glad she remembered. If anything good could come from my cancer diagnosis, donating my hair is a good first step.
I’m glad my daughter wasn’t there to witness my tears. It would have been disconcerting to her. Throughout the weeks between the diagnosis and the lumpectomy, we had tried to give the kids a positive outlook. We didn’t want to scare them, even though my husband and I had a lot of concerns. If she had been there for the haircut, she would see my own uncertainty bared before her, and I wasn’t quite ready for that just yet. I wanted to present a brave front for her and our other three children. I wasn’t ready for them to know my fears, and my tears on the day of the “big cut” would have given her a glimpse into my own doubt of what I would be able to handle as the treatments began.
As I sat in the chair unable to stop the tears, I noticed the other stylists looking our way. I tried to stop crying and I couldn’t. It was the first time in 6 weeks that I wasn’t near any of my family members and I could let go and once I did, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t have to be brave and strong in front of Julina or the members in her salon. I could be vulnerable and scared. And I was.
After Julina finished, she took our regular “after” picture. Her stylists came up and complimented me on my new ‘do. They were also used to seeing me in fun colors and they knew that my short haircut in preparation for my treatments was a big step for me. Someone handed me a prayer card. They all tried to bolster my mood and to give me strength and love before I began the next phase of my journey and for that I am grateful. The stylists in her shop care about the whole person. If you can find a community like that, stay with them.
I came home and my oldest son was the first to see me. He looked at me startled, and tried to cover his surprise. But teenage boys are not very equipped in the art of subtlety and he gave a forced smile with an enthused “I like it Mom!” But I knew the dramatic change unnerved him.
My oldest daughter saw me come into the family room and her jaw dropped for a moment and she said, “I’ll get used to it.”
My 9 year old gave me his usual joyful, “Mommy! You’re home!” accompanied by one of his tight hugs. He looked up and said, “You look different!”
And when my youngest looked my way she said, “You don’t look like my mommy, anymore,” and my heart broke. But as I reminded her, I will always be her mommy.
It’s just hair and how I style it doesn’t change who I am or how I am loved. But cutting my hair was one more step into the unknown of my cancer journey. It was a big step. Each step kept making this surreal situation more and more real. Cutting my hair, like the lumpectomy, was another tangible reminder that this isn’t a dream. I actually do have cancer.
When this journey is over, I will be a different person. I will have experienced hardship and grace. I will have experienced terror and thanksgiving. I will have experienced kindness from loved ones and strangers. Trials shape a person. I hope that when I come out on the other side cancer will show that I have become stronger in my faith, kinder, and more resilient.