Once I knew I’d have chemotherapy as part of my cancer treatment, I assumed I’d be bald for a while. My oncologist confirmed that fact at my first appointment: “You will lose your hair,” he noted. I just nodded. It would begin to thin within a week or two after the first treatment, he said, and likely shed in earnest after the second round.
Before I even lost the first strand, the vision of my bald self that kept appearing in my mind’s eye was of one of the Precogs in the 2002 movie Minority Report, a sci-fi thriller set in Washington DC in 2054. The Precogs are three mutated humans with extra-sensory powers who spend most of the film floating in a tank, “previsualizing” crimes so that Tom Cruise’s character can arrest potential perpetrators before any heinous acts take place.
The Precogs—specifically the character of Agatha Lively, played by Samantha Morton—are pale, near-bald, and wide-eyed, and for some reason, every time I tried to imagine myself without hair, that’s the image I saw.
I’m not sure why, as my one previous near-bald experience involved neither liquid immersion nor futuristic crime-fighting. I got a buzz cut in my mid-thirties when, at the university where I taught in Georgia, I played the lead role in Wit, Margaret Edson’s play about a stiff-lipped professor of British literature who faces ovarian cancer. Actors typically shave their heads for the role, and I was game. I made the transition gradually, having my bobbed hair cut short, then shorter, finally shaving it down to a buzz.
At that point I’m sorry to say I lost my nerve. Though I didn’t take it all the way to bare skin, that experience helped prepare me for the prospect of being bald once I became a real cancer patient who didn’t have a choice in the matter.
My approach was pragmatic. As the doctor had outlined it, the timeline of my treatments meant I could retain my regular haircut through my parents’ 50th anniversary party in mid-July. After that, a transition to a pixie cut would make the progressive loss less immediately obvious, and probably less traumatic. As I told an old friend at my folks’ gathering, I decided to relish, with intention, those last couple of weeks of having hair: I went a little brighter blonde than usual for fun, styled it deliberately each day, tinkered with a new curling wand I’d bought a month before. Once the hair was gone, my plan was to break out my vintage hats and scarf collection, and enjoy the inevitable simplification of my daily grooming routine with equal deliberateness.
The first significant thinning took place while Steve and I were visiting my parents for the anniversary party, a week after my first chemo. When I got up to go to the bathroom during the night, there in the mirror, by the light of the nightlight, I saw a distinct shadow on my left breast, a darkening of the skin where the cancer was located. Instinctively I understood the shadow to be a concentrating of the chemotherapy drugs in the mass. The first significant cluster of hair strands shed into my hands as I showered the next morning. So, the drugs were working. That was good.
The next week my Roanoke stylist Brandy gave me the anticipated pixie cut, accompanied by a welcome mimosa. The pixie got raves, but it only lasted about a week. I let my hair come out on its own until it got patchy, then invited my girlfriends over for a head-shaving porch party. I cried as the hair fell away, but we laughed together, too, and I felt surrounded by love and support as they rallied around and Steve kissed my head, which now matched his. When a few days later my thirteen-year-old nephew showed up shorn and shaven, having cut his long hair off to donate to Locks of Love, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
My daily routine has shifted dramatically. No shampooing or conditioning, which I expected. No blow-dryer or flat-iron. But also: no leg or underarm or bikini shaving. The number of products I use regularly has been cut by at least a third. The change has made me wonder how many hours of my life, how much of my money, I’ve given over to hair all these years. I feel more confident when I’m coiffed and styled, when I wear makeup, but the investment is bigger than I’d ever reckoned. Now I’m left wondering: is all the time worth the trade-off?
For a while I did a double-take anytime I passed by a mirror. Wait, who’s that woman with the short hair/buzz cut/no hair? I wore something on my head most all the time at first, even sleeping with a blue wool beanie (sexy!) like Pa in his cap, T’was the Night Before Christmas-style. After the hot flashes set in (another side effect courtesy of chemo), I was almost glad not to have a hat of hair closing off the handy heat-vent that is my bare scalp.
Compared to the prospect of permanent loss and alteration of my breasts, temporary hair loss is just that—temporary, and not so terrible. But there have been a few irksome moments. On our recent visit to Asheville, I spent a day at the Grove Park Inn Spa. As the attendant took me and another patron on a tour, she pointed out all the luxurious goodies we’d have access to in the showers: citrus shampoo and conditioner, body wash, shaving cream. I smiled ruefully. Well, yay for body wash. Just a few days ago I got an Ulta Beauty catalog-advertisement in the mail that made me shake my head. The cover advertised two events: a special promotion for October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the month’s beauty focus, “The Gorgeous Hair Event,” tagline “Every Girl’s Way to Good Hair Days.” The first fourteen pages of the ad are devoted solely to hair care products and tools. Then follows a two-page spread on Breast Cancer Research Foundation initiatives–two support options are getting a shampoo/cut or pink hair extensions. Someone did not think that combo through fully, methinks.
No one seems to mind the state of my head, really, though that day in the spa, I did get a few startled glances from other patrons when I first shed my headscarf. As I lay back in one of the pools, I imagine I really did resemble a Precog, ready to send and receive messages from the larger store of humanity. Across the room, a man with an artificial leg removed his prosthetic and slid into another pool; an elderly woman helped a frailer friend navigate stone tile steps. As I floated, listening to the underwater music, I gazed up through the skylight above me, watching the clouds shapeshift in the blue beyond. I had no predictions to make, for ill or good. I simply rested, my shiny head and healing body absorbing the truth of our shared imperfections: we’re all bald beneath our hair.