Hair. A feature so inessential yet so central in defining our identity. How we look and how we feel is often determined by or displayed through our hair. If we are exhausted or in a funk, we throw our hair up in a messy bun or walk out the door with bed head. But on days we feel good or excited for big life moments, we put the utmost care and attention into how we look – most particularly to our hair. When my hair looks good, I feel REALLY good.
Hair, in many ways, defines us: our uniqueness, our individuality, who we are and what we see as our place in the world.
As a redhead, my hair has always been a central, crucial part of my identity. Throughout my life, people often casually call me Red, and I inevitably respond, often to strangers. In college many recognized me as ‘the redheaded cheerleader.’ My particular shade of red – a deep strawberry blonde, or orange if you ask a child – is unique even for a redhead. Hair stylists often lamented that they could not get my shade in a bottle, and throughout my life many women came up to me saying they wished they could have my color hair. Countless times people commented on the beauty of its color. The color of my hair was striking. And it was long. Down to my waist.
Now it is gone.
The inevitability of chemo-induced hair loss was unavoidable, yet this understanding did nothing to lessen the pain when it did start to fall. Nothing could have prepared me for it. My efforts to do so were in vain. Hair loss is traumatic, chemo-induced loss in particular, and I lost mine in probably one of the most traumatic fashions imaginable.
In the whirlwind of diagnostics and egg freezing, I also focused on a plan of self-preservation. I was told that my hair would fall, and that it might not grow back the same: post-chemo growth often comes back thicker, a different texture, curly, or even a different color – often darker. Thicker I’ll certainly take, but please not a different color, please not darker, please not curly. That fact is, I have no clue and no control. So, I concluded that I was left with photographs, portraits.
I became a selfie-taker. I asked for pictures to be taken of me. I asked my very multi-talented yogi friend Mariella to do a more professional shoot with me. And, I reached out to a photographer who had given me his card back in November. I was sitting on my own in a cafe on the Lower East Side with a sleeveless black top and my hair long and straight. I had noticed him glance in my direction once or twice, and eventually he gathered his things and walked over to hand me his business card. He was a photographer working on a series with redheads, he would love to shoot me, and if I was interested in his work I should get in contact. Then he left. Later on I looked him up and he was legit, but I did nothing with it, because my life at the time was a whirlwind and I wasn’t feeling quite myself. Still unsure, I tucked his card away and thought I might reach out when I was feeling a little better. Little did I know then that the lymphoma had already taken hold within me and my disease itself would later spur me to take action.
I’d been told by doctors and other patients who underwent my treatment that the hair usually fell about three to four weeks after the start of treatment, so right before round two or right after. I planned to cut my hair short before it fell. But I had to get in a photo shoot. Since I felt exhausted and bloated from the prednisone and hormones leading up to round one, I put off the photos and wasn’t sure I would actually get in contact with the pro – I felt awful and disgusting and didn’t want to document that. A week and a half after round one, when I was finally out of my hazy daze, I did the shoot with Mariella, and made the decision to contact the photographer in a last-second, last-ditch effort, wondering if he remembered me, wondering if he was still interested, and wondering if he had any availability that very weekend since my hair would soon be falling out.
Nikola graciously responded to the affirmative on all fronts and we set up the shoot for Sunday. He booked his assistant and gave me some direction in outfit options. Friday, exactly two weeks after the START of my first treatment and two days before the shoot, my hair subtly began to shed, only noticeable to me, but noticeable and distressing nonetheless. I tried not to panic. Saturday was more at the same rate, nothing crazy, but it was officially happening. Sunday morning I woke up, having planned to wash it so it was good for the shoot. For a moment I hesitated and wondered if I should just attempt dry shampoo, but it was oily and dirty and this was a professional photo shoot – I didn’t want to waste my last opportunity to have my long, beautifully red hair preserved in pictures before it was gone, and potentially never the same.
So I shampooed. And it fell. And matted like hell. I put palmful after palmful of conditioner in to ease the matte out to no avail. I stepped out of the shower, picked up my wide tooth comb, and got to work. It was a solid mass. But I was determined. More hair fell, but the matte was coming down – very slowly, but it was moving. More hair fell. The comb was clumped. The sink was full. And the matte got tighter and tighter in spite of my diligent efforts. While I quietly started sobbing to myself in the bathroom upstairs, losing hope and getting angry with myself for not dry shampooing and despairing about my loss and the photo shoot, my neighbor Hadil spontaneously dropped by to bring sweets for me and my dad. He asked her to go up and check on me. I had texted the photographer asking if we should cancel since my hair was falling, and he called me back with words of encouragement – we would do the shoot no matter what my hair looked like, as long as I felt up for it. It was up to me. Well acquainted with hair and beauty, Hadil got to work right away with lots of words of soothing encouragement. More conditioner, more combing. She went home to bring back supplies and a hair extension that was miraculously close to my natural color. She would get me ready for that shoot.
After two hours of extensive sobbing and sustained effort to remove the matte, we finally resorted to scissors. It seemed half of my hair was already in the sink or down the drain and the matte was a lost cause. We salvaged what remained, which was nearly shoulder length hair in the back and two long strands framing my face in the front, all very thinned. Yes, it looked completely bizarre. But the top was mostly intact. Hadil curled what was left and attached the extension in back – not an easy task with what little was left to attach it to. It was not ideal, but it was a passable solution. I splashed my face with cold water, threw on a dress and a little makeup to cover the tear-induced splotchiness, and got in the car. I was shaken but determined. I would do the shoot.
Two days later, my hair had continued to thin and my friends Mariella and Nicole came over to buzz my hair. We made a girls night of it and they made me have fun with it by trying out different short styles before the buzz: bob, pixie, and even a Mohawk! I looked like a completely different person. And of course there was plenty more photo-shooting and selfie-taking. And there were silver linings: apparently, I can pull off the short looks, and maybe even the no-hair look… (And I haven’t had to shave all summer! 😉
For the first week, I was in complete shock every time I looked in the mirror. I still, three months later, occasionally forget I am basically bald (some peach fuzz never fell) and look at myself with surprise when I walk by a mirror at home. The eyebrows are mostly intact, if slightly thinned, but the eyelashes have thinned dramatically and may continue to do so after this final round. Of course my family and by now most of my close friends have seen me without hair, and the general consensus is, yes, I can pull it off quite well – feedback is that I have a nicely shaped head and the ears for the no-hair look. Who knew that was even a thing, much less a thing I possessed.
But, I have yet to go out into public without my hair. I put on a wig, not even a scarf. The wigs are really fun, and it’s the first time in my life I’ve played with ‘my’ hair. And until now – now that treatment is more or less done (tomorrow!) – I have never posted a picture of me without hair. It has taken me this long to get comfortable with it, and honestly comfortable isn’t even the appropriate word. To accept it, embrace it. To let go of it and be open to whatever comes next.
As of tomorrow, I will no longer be a ‘cancer patient.’ As of tomorrow, I will no longer walk around with wires coming out of my arm. I will not have hair for probably (hopefully) about a month, and it will take a quite while to grow back to its former glory. But as far as any stranger is concerned, maybe I chose to go bald. This summer has been humid. Hair is hot. Wigs are hotter. Even so, I will wear wigs most of the time. And maybe once it grows in I will choose to stay short(er). But I have a choice every day to decide what I want to look like, how I want to appear to the world. Maybe I will go long and red one day, classic and feminine, maybe glamorous honey blonde bombshell the next. Maybe I’ll walk out the door with a sassy short blonde bob, or go trendy and unique with the lavender. Or maybe I’ll go bold and simply go bald. Bald and beautiful.