Hair’s an Update

Hello, friends. It’s been a while. 🙂

I’m glad to say my hiatus is mostly a result of lots of good things going on, combined with an awareness that I still need to apportion my energy. My June reconstructive surgery went well; I’m overjoyed to have soft-ish implants in place of those bricks they call tissue expanders. My hubby Steve and I had a nice beach week at Emerald Isle, and I returned to work at the beginning of August, where my colleagues have been welcoming and supportive. There’ve been some hard things, too. We lost our sweet dog Imoh suddenly and unexpectedly to kidney failure in July. I have one more minor surgery to go yet, chemo brain is real, and I still have to do some combination of physical therapy, yoga, and/or self-massage daily to address range-of-motion limitations and prevent lymphedema.

That last is the other reason I’ve been writing less: now that I’m back at the office, spending a lot of work hours at the computer, my neck and shoulder lock up within a few hours. I have to ration my desk time, a frustrating scenario for a writer. I like to think my tales here do some good, that they offer a kind of window into a world that too many of us have (or will have) a need to understand. And I fear that because I stopped posting, I may have reinforced the idea that the cancer story ends when treatment is done and the rogue cells are vanquished. I (along with every other survivor) probably wish more fervently than anyone that that were true. I would love to “get back to normal.” But I’m still trying to figure out what “normal” looks like.

Consider: at the last check-up with my medical oncologist, I teared up talking about some trifling symptom—a headache, a knee that kept popping—that had worried me briefly. He nodded, and said “After what you’ve been through, for a while, everything that happens to and with your body, you’ll think— ‘It’s cancer.’ That’s normal.”

Process that for a minute. That’s normal.

It’s hard, then, to know what to say when you get an email that includes a genuine, well-intentioned “hope you’re feeling 100%.” It feels cranky and self-pitying to reply, “Well, actually, my doctors keep reminding me that it takes 18 to 24 months after the last major treatment or surgery to get back to baseline.” Or what to think when a colleague asks “How are you? Really, how are you?” and when you begin to answer honestly—you’re good, but still have another surgery ahead and some big decisions to make—she interrupts and says, “But you’re here, you’re good, you look great, you’re healthy.” More than once I’ve felt chastised, like I’m supposed to be so grateful to be alive and cancer-free, I’m not allowed to have any other feelings about the losses I’ve endured. Or if I do, I’m not supposed to talk about them.

The messy truth is that oftentimes people don’t really want to know the messy truth.

I think these kinds of responses are motivated by the same basic impulse: people want a happily ever after story. They want it for the person who’s been ill, because they sincerely care about that person and wish them health and happiness. But they also want it for themselves, because it’s reassuring. If my mortality no longer seems to be under immediate threat, they aren’t reminded of their own when they see me. None of us has to think about just how close we stand, every day, to the brink.

Maybe that’s why my still-short hair confuses and unsettles people. After chemo finished last October, my hair began to grow back by late December, but remained somewhere just shy of peach fuzz until February. As it filled in, people commented, “Your hair’s really coming back!” My returning hair was seen as a proxy for restored health. When I finally had enough for a haircut, I opted to keep it pixie short. With my range of motion issues, and more surgery on the horizon, spending half an hour with my arms lifted above my head every day to style it would be painful if not impossible. It was much easier to manage it short. Besides, I thought it looked kinda cute.

But friends and colleagues, especially those I haven’t seen in a while, continue to comment on my hair growth, often with puzzlement or concern. Most know that treatment ended some months ago. There’s an unspoken question under their words: if everything’s okay, shouldn’t I have more hair by now?

I’ve come to wonder if there’s yet another reason I’ve kept my pixie. Since I don’t, nor do I want to, go around flashing my scars, it’s the primary way I have to telegraph to people that things have changed for me, permanently. That I am still processing through this experience physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I will be for a while. That there really isn’t any “getting back” to normal; “normal” is different than before, something I’m still negotiating, still learning to navigate.

I didn’t plan it that way, but I recognize now that my pixie cut is a kind of signifier. Maybe for myself, as much as anyone. It’s a reminder to be kind and gentle, with myself, and others. It’s a cue to take care of myself, to be patient with this long and often circuitous healing process.

Last year around this time, Steve, my father and I visited the first annual Sunflower Festival at Beaver Dam Farm in nearby Fincastle. It was a chemo weekend, but usually after a Friday infusion I’d have a reasonably good Saturday afternoon before the side-effects would hit hard. Sunflowers make me happy, and we had a good, but short, visit. This year Steve and I returned, and though the flowers themselves were a bit droopy due to lack of rain, it was sheer joy to stroll leisurely through the fields of their sunny faces, goofing around, sharing ice cream. Steve and I will celebrate our second wedding anniversary in a few days. For our first anniversary, we squeezed a trip back to the site of our honeymoon in between chemo treatments. I’ll happily supplant a fancier celebration with this year’s simple dinner at a local restaurant, accompanied by cancer-free body and the relative sense of peace in my heart.

I suspect that, eventually, I’ll grow my hair out, and take its color back again to the blond of my youth. But for now, if my pixie prompts me to spend less time in front of a mirror, and more time drinking in the wonders of this too-fragile world, it’s more than enough hair for me.

Photos taken at the second annual Sunflower Festival at Beaver Dam Farm, Fincastle, Virginia.