The evening of the day my hair started to fall out, Christie, Barbara and I were having dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Naturally, I had to tell them how it all happened.
“Guess what happened this morning?”
“What happened, Deb?” Christie asked, leaning forward in anticipation.
“I reached up to pull some fuzz out of my hair and the whole clump of hair came out. I’m losing my hair!”
“Wow! What did you do?”
“I kept pulling pieces from different places on my head – then I showered and washed my hair to see how much more would come out.”
Christie was fascinated. Barbara was unnaturally quiet.
“You know what would be fun?" I said, "Let’s go back to my house after dinner, sit on the deck, and see if we can make a checkerboard pattern on my head!”
“How can you talk like that!!?” Barbara shouted at us. Our heads whipped around as we looked at her with astonishment. “She’s losing her hair! That’s terrible!” Barbara was near tears.
“It’s her hair, Barbara,” Christie murmured soothingly. But Barbara was not to be comforted.
I didn't realize right away that many people would be distraught about losing their hair. I had to learn about it from others.
When I spoke at a conference not long ago about my experiences, for example, one of the women from the audience told me how it was for her. She just shook her head, “I couldn’t bear to lose my hair – it’s who I am – my whole image of me is wrapped up in how I look with my hair!”
I was lucky that way. My image isn't tied to the way my hair looks. For me, one of the hardest adjustments was not being able to do all the things I was used to doing.
I hated the "nap attacks" and not being able to just get up and go do the things I love to do. I found that my identity was tied up in being a doer. Not doing was hard and having to ask for help was harder, much harder for me than worrying about how my hair looks.
Even so, losing my hair meant something else that many of us with cancer have to deal with. Until we lose our hair, most of us look fairly normal. Losing our hair is the step that firmly sets us apart from the rest of the population.
We'll always be apart from them. Once you've had breast cancer, even if you're free of symptoms for years, you know that it can always recur. As a friend said to me, "Once you've had breast cancer you can't be sure it won't come back until you die of something else."
That's the shadow that's always lurking around the corner. It's also the reality that puts other things, like being bothered by asking for help, or losing your hair, into perspective.
For me the hair issue was easily solved. A few days after that dinner with Christie and Barbara, I decided to shave my head.
First, I went to the beauty parlor and got “buzzed.” Then I went home and borrowed my husband's shaving cream and razor and shaved the stubble off to be truly "bald."
I didn't stay bald, but I did find that I liked short hair. You can see how I looked before and after chemo by visiting one of the photo galleries. And you can see how I look today by checking out the picture on the main page of this site.
Everyone who gets breast cancer has lots of hard things they have to deal with. But for me, checkerboard hair was one of the easy ones.
For more on Deb's experiences around this time, read the emails from April 7, 2000.