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Nine-Inch Hair: Cancer's Battle Scar

Outwardly, you start to look like your old self again while inside you're still licking the wounds of your cancer battle.
PUBLISHED January 28, 2019
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at

I have nine inches of hair on top of my head, growing outwardly in tufts above my ears. Too short for a ponytail, too frizzy to slick back, the hairs curl tightly into itself above my neck like gnarled branches. I feel blessed and betrayed by my hair; thankful that I wasn't left with chemo-induced hair loss that marks many cancer survivors for life, while also disappointed that my original hair has returned.

Unlike the Phoenix, my hair did not burst bright red out of my head and flow quickly and gracefully in straight waves around my shoulders. Perhaps that was too much to hope for – a consolation prize for winning my cancer battle months ago. Instead, I tend to my hair like I tend to my garden, tentatively and with great expectation. But no matter how much I twirl and pick, brush and comb, it still looks like a football helmet.

To a stranger, it looks like I'm just growing out what could have been an unfortunate haircut. Most days, I hide under warm knitted caps, tucking every strand away and out of sight. My children, so excited for my hair regrowth, comb and play with my hair. They cobble together clumps of hair and create lopsided pigtails on either side of my head, then laugh uproariously when the hair band escapes.

Apart from my hair, outwardly I'm starting to look like my old self again. My PICC line scar hidden under winter gear makes a brief appearance before a shower, but gets cloaked immediately after, hidden from sight in long sleeves and sweatshirts. There are no other physical remnants of my cancer battle. While inside, the wounds still bleed, and I sometimes wonder how much longer it will take until they heal.

There are days when I question if it was even real; when I'm distracted by work deadlines and dirty dishes there's no time to reflect on how close I was to death. When school lunches need to be made and the puppy needs to go out for a walk, it's easy to forget about the eight months of weekly hospital trips, daily injections into my stomach, and the lonely isolation from my family and friends while immunocompromised.

But I still need that reminder. I need proof that cancer really happened to me. I need a reason for the inner turmoil that sometimes keeps me up at night, for the days when emotionally I'm just exhausted and it gets overwhelming. I wonder what will happen one day when I look at my reflection and I see the old me, the pre-cancer me. When I look at myself in the mirror one day, will I be healed?

So today, I focus on my hair, my daily physical reminder of stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I fret and fuss over it and tend and measure it, I try to style it and brush it. I run my fingers through it and feel my scalp for the bumps and beauty marks that were visible only months before, and I accept that nine inches of hair is my battle scar.


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