We all know that going through cancer can bring about huge internal changes. It is these changes, predominantly metaphysical, that I tend to focus on in my writing. I talk a lot about how radically my perspective of the world was changed by confronting illness, how it compelled me to look inside, and really see the value of life. I don’t, however, tend to write too much about the physical changes I went through. Perhaps because there’s this stigma attached to caring too much about one’s appearance. Although it’s nice to pretend we live in a society that only cares about the inside, the truth is appearance and aesthetics do matter. And despite that there’s far more to a person than their physicality; having it compromised and radically altered in a short space of time can hurt. How could it not?
Losing one’s hair truly sucks. It’s nice to pretend that we’re undeterred by the world’s opinion and can just “rock the bald look,” but in reality, hair loss has to be the worst side effect of chemo, at least for me anyway. Worse than nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, and exhaustion. Why? Because it feels like having a part of your identity ripped away.
Before cancer, I never realized how much I relied on my hair. Not until it began falling out in clumps in the shower, and I had to wear hair wraps to cover up the bald patches. Not until about two months into chemo when I took the plunge and shaved it all off. I hated losing my hair. I hated feeling so exposed; having everyone see my sickness. I felt jealous of the women around me, many of them my best friends, with their long, luscious locks. I felt that if my appearance had remained the same, then I could have hidden my disease. Yes, I would have been suffering on the inside, but at least nobody would have known. I just wanted to pretend everything was OK.
But hair loss prevented that. It meant I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t mask my suffering. Sure, there are wigs. But I could never wear them. They felt itchy and uncomfortable and just weren’t for me. I wore scarves most of the time, jarred by the sight of my baldness in the mirror. It was incredibly tough to accept the loss of the old me.
But (and there’s always a but), in retrospect losing my hair gifted me with an enormously invaluable lesson. It forced me to face myself. It forced me to get to know the real Michelle, the person who’d been hiding for so long. I’d been relying on my looks a lot more than I had realized. That’s not to say I had no depth. But my looks were always my safety net. Having that ripped away was confusing. But at the same time, it helped me learn how to really love myself. I had no choice. If I wasn’t going to love myself, then who would?
I’ll never forget what was perhaps the bravest night of my life. I went to a party in my home city, surrounded by friends, exes, people I’d grown up with, and I took off my scarf and walked valiantly into that room with my head held high. I learned that night that true beauty is surviving. It’s vulnerability. It’s wearing your story on your sleeve for the world to see. It’s showing up and saying, “This is me,” “This is my truth.” I never thought I could survive that difficult time and yet I did. I overcame the mountain.
And since then, I’ve gone through all the awkward regrowth stages. The newborn fluffy chick, the pixie cut, the cringe-worthy ’80s mullet. My hair has grown back totally different, a wild curly crazy mess, and yet finally I can see its beauty. I love it because it’s my medal for having survived the storm.
The beauty of hair is that it does grow back. Just like wounds heal, and hearts do eventually mend. Just like that devastating grief that comes with the loss of a loved one does get easier.
If you’re going through chemo and you’re losing your hair, my message to you is to have courage. Don’t cover it up all the time with scarves because chances are you’ll look back one day and regret not embracing it more. It’s temporary. And you won’t know this now, and you probably won’t be able to see it when you look in the mirror, but that bald, patchy head is a symbol of your strength, your fight, and your courage. It’s your crown.
A poem I wrote about losing my hair:
“A New Crown”
And she watched herself burn in the smoke and the fire
white hot flames that she slowly began to admire
and she cried and cried as the remnants were cast
and her ways and woes became a part of the past,
The wind swept the embers of who she used to be
like ripples dancing across the surface of the sea
like pages of history ripped from a book
she whispered goodbye, grabbed her coat from its hook
and left without giving it one final look,
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
she felt herself slowly beginning to trust
and all that was left was raw vulnerability
she woke up to see the patterns of synchronicity
and she knew it was time to step into her light,
fireflies lit up the path that lay dormant at night,
She held her head high, hair falling to the ground
strands of golden thread that didn’t make a sound
she didn’t look back and she didn’t look down
she carried on upwards, refusing to drown,
With a spring in her step and a fire in her toes
her body was made of iron and bones
sturdy as the wind, light as a feather
she bent and she bruised, she changed like the weather,
She raised her marble wings to the sun
and she knew before it was over, she’d already won
and she never looked back and she never looked down
she flew into the horizon, wearing her crown
(Photos courtesy of Michelle Raphaella Fredman)
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