My hair was a large part of my identity before I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February 2015. I have, for many years of my life, always been a woman that cared quite a bit (highest diva status) about my hair. I curled it, colored it, primped it, fluffed it, whatever. I loved my hair. It was a crucial part to my physical identity. It’s so crucial that here I am talking about it, again, even though I’ve already written on this during treatment.
I know I’m not alone in this. Many other women feel the same way. It sucks, it’s horrible, it’s one of the worst things about treatment. No one wants to lose their hair.
But there’s so many women who pull themselves up, (Shannon Doherty’s battle with breast cancer is a great example of this bravery) and wear the bald with pride and poise. It’s so raw, honest, and amazing.
This is something that I have always admired so much. It is real. It is courageous. It is beautiful.
It’s also something that I was never comfortable doing myself.
Even on the days I felt like hell in a hand basket traveling down a stream of chemical misery, I would put that wig on. Every time I left the house, I would wear that wig. Most of the time I wore my wigs to my chemo sessions at the clinic and maybe I’d take them off during infusions but they’d always go back on for selfies (important for that blogging process!) or when I would have visitors. Despite how uncomfortable and miserable those wigs were, I would wear them almost daily. It was the one aspect of treatment I could control to at least look as normal as I wanted to feel. Eyebrows and eyelashes (of course, there’s plenty of options for those too!) are more challenging to replicate but a wig was just so accessible.
I felt so hideously ugly and alien without a wig.
I was just not comfortable being seen as the sick cancer girl. Maybe part of it was wrapped up in the loss of my vanity that I had for my hair. Or perhaps part of it was how I viewed my cancer as a weakness that some might exploit. Now looking back on it, I think it was a combination of both. I’ll never forget, like so many of us, the absolute utter devastation I felt when those first few strands of hair fell out. It was almost as bad as the day I was diagnosed with cancer. I cried that day. I didn’t cry the day I was diagnosed. Something about losing my hair, losing the core of my physical identity, shattered my reality.
When I hit remission, thankfully, I began obsessing over when my hair would grow back. And when my hair was a stubby GI Jane cut, is about when I began meeting other cancer survivors. It humbled me to see others with worse cancers than mine and reminded me of how lucky I am. In the bigger picture, it’s just hair.
But in many situations, there has been so much isolation in some of the physical insecurities that come along with the impact of chemotherapy. I should just be grateful that I’m alive, I shouldn’t still lament how much I hate my short hair. I shouldn’t be miserable over all the weight I’ve gained. I should learn to live with my scars.
Telling survivors that they should just be thankful for the bigger picture, completely negates the stark reality of the low self-esteem issues that can strike the most confident of us after a battle of cancer. I know I am not alone in this. My self-esteem after cancer, although it improves with each inch of hair regrowth, was horrible after watching my body drastically change in such a short time. Yet so often we’re told the “just be grateful to be alive!” narrative that we dismiss so much of these issues of self-image and self-esteem that can eat away at us. And yes, I am grateful to be alive. Every single day, I am grateful. Yet insecurities of weight and physical appearance are already a huge issue for young adults (and all age groups) that impact people’s lives in serious and life threatening ways. Cancer survivors are not exempt from these insecurities. And if our treatment has made them worse or created insecurities that never existed before, this needs to be addressed.
Mental health is important too.
And mental health can be so connected (for women AND men) to issues of personal appearance that it is insane to not address how this impacts cancer survivors, especially young adults, that have just experienced sudden and drastic changes to their body that they may be struggling to accept.
Bald is beautiful, of course it is. But for some of us, we never felt beautiful as bald. And that voice needs to be in the conversation too. That it is okay to not feel beautiful while bald. When my hair was growing back, I used to just sit (I’m still guilty of this) and stare at pictures of my hair before I lost it. It’s going to take a long time until it’s that long again. This is a real mourning process, one that I am just now finally learning to accept over a year later as my hair has reached a length I am finally comfortable with. Yet I always felt stupid for lamenting my hair so constantly. After all, I was alive. What is hair in the bigger picture of survival?
Hair is such a core identity marker and for survivors like me, losing that piece of yourself can be devastating. It’s something that for so many of us becomes an uphill battle of self-acceptance. And it’s okay to feel that way.