JILL KLEISS feels confident in her new, short hairstyle. - PHOTO BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
BARELY THREE MONTHS INTO my chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, I flew to Texas to be with my dad. By then, my confidence had plummeted along with the number of hairs on my head. Fellow survivors in support groups tried to reassure me, but nothing helped.
I had had long hair since childhood, and, as predicted by my oncologist, after four chemotherapy treatments, my hair fell out at the slightest tug or stroke of a brush. I was self-conscious about being bald. I opted to have my head shaved, fast-forwarding to the inevitable.
As a naïve patient, I expected hair loss, but I didn’t realize that chemotherapy hits everything: eyelashes, eyebrows, nasal hair and all body hair. I never realized how protective lashes are or how important nasal hairs are for staving off sinus infections — until they were gone. At the time of my trip, I had reached the “all gone” stage. For the flight to visit Dad, I donned my wig, which I unaffectionately dubbed “Road Kill.” Worse yet, I wore the protective hygienic mask.
So, with Road Kill on my head and the mask across my face, I began my journey.
On board the plane, I tried cheering myself with “It could be worse” stories. They didn’t work. Regarding my fellow travelers, I opted for full disclosure. I told my seatmate, “I’m not contagious. I’m undergoing chemo.” He nodded at me but remained silent throughout the trip.
Patients undergoing chemotherapy know that it’s a risk to fly during treatment. The slightest infection could have landed me in the hospital because my immune system was so compromised. But there was no question that I would make the trip. CNN was interviewing my dad, N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, the last surviving dive-bomber (a pilot) from the Battle of Midway. He was 99. This would be his last interview, and it would provide me with our last picture together.
The cancer experience brings unexpected gifts, and one was coming my way. After landing, I hopped onto the handicap shuttle to get to my next gate. The wind didn’t sail through Road Kill, but the breeze made my mask whistle.
JILL KLEISS with her father, DUSTY, while she was undergoing chemotherapy. This is the last photo they took together. - PHOTO BY JILL KLEISS
Friendly fire, as I called it, shot out from commuting passersby. People tried not to stare but did anyway. Cancer is a unique battle. I’ve never been to war like my father, but with cancer, I feel that all my afflicted pals continue to be trench buddies. There is empathy, union and compassion with and for them that I previously could never have imagined.
Seated in the cart, I kept hoping to see a kindred cancer spirit but found none. Then, while walking to baggage claim, I spied a young, exotic-looking bald woman with thick, penciled eyebrows. Without hesitating, I approached her and asked timidly, “Are you one of us?” She saw my pink ribbon pin and said, “Yes, I have breast cancer, too.” We hugged and I started to cry. She was gorgeous, and I told her so. She let me take her picture before we traded names.
“I’m Corri,” she said. I learned that the mother of three was going back for more chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. She was stage 3B.
“I’m glad I met you,” I told her. “I needed to see one of us.”
As soon as I said goodbye to Corri my vision of myself changed. If Corri could be bald, so could I. After retrieving my suitcase from baggage claim, I stopped for a moment. With a clear intention, I lifted Road Kill from my head and dropped him in the trash. From then on, apart from the purpose of keeping my head warm, I wore bald proudly.
In the morning Dad had his interview. I watched as the cameras rolled. When they finished, I asked the cameraman if he would take a picture of us: my bald head next to his. My eyes misted. I somehow knew this would be our last picture together. There, holding him as I did, I felt beautiful for the first time in months. Dad accepted his age and impending death, and I, minus Road Kill, gained courage to be the true me headed for the “cured” state of health I am in today.