Hair: A Bold, Bald Statement During Cancer


I lost my hair during cancer treatment, but now that it’s growing back, I no longer obviously look like a patient.

cartoon drawing of blogger and gynecologic cancer survivor, Doris White

When I first stepped onto this cancer path last spring, I steeled myself for all of the rumored potholes: unrelenting fatigue; loss of appetite; debilitating nausea. I even suspected my eyebrows and eyelashes would become distant memories. Perhaps the most impactful side effect predicted was theloss of my thick, curly hair.

My beautician and I made a tentative timetable for how and when to completely shave my head. Last October, when clumps of hair clotted my comb or brush, we knew it was time to execute what I termed the “Wakanda Plan.” Afterwards, all was well as a shiny scalp greeted each glance in the mirror.

Now, some five months after ringing the bell at the treatment center, I continue along the road which has forked onto a path of surveillance. I draw some comfort from the clear PET scan (except for the benign growth on my pituitary gland — a story for another day), the encouraging bloodwork and uneventful pelvic exams. And it is so very good to savor favorite foods and beverages once more. While scheduled appointments to flush my chest port were unexpected, I can adjust to those inconveniences.

What has completely upended my comfort in ways I had not foreseen is the return of my natural curls. Gone is the pale stubble atop my noggin; it providedvery little warmth during the winter months yet was a familiar growth. Where the mirror once reflected the smooth contours of what I considered a well-formed skull, salt-and-pepper strands emerged by March. My hair oddly resembled that of my grandson when he was born shortly before my diagnosis: a silky, dark covering. By May, my God-given, African DNA had kicked in, curling those downy strands into a gray-streaked thicket. With the reanimation of my hair follicles has come a new and somewhat unsettling dilemma.

I gloried in my bald head. Yes, I did! This retired sistah took pride in bearing her cancer treatment (the results thereof) to all the world. I refused to cover up with headgear unless chilly weather dictated otherwise. Sporting the funkiest costume jewelry available and my natural-born drama-queen tendencies, I boldly invited the averted eyes of adults and the blatant ogling of children. My baldness triggered interesting conversations with friends and strangers alike and I happily shared tidbits of my cancer story, seeking to undertake my own educational advocacy on a personal level.

Since I’m not devoid of scalp hair anymore, my status as a cancer patient is no longer readily apparent to the public. My weightloss could easily be attributed to some radical fad diet. Occasional unsteadiness on my feet and a penchant for frequent naps might make others suspect different health issues or simply an ageing physique. For the past year, I have made peace with the rigors of my health journey. I have willingly, eagerly worn the big “C” on my head, encouraging a curious world to learn about my struggles along the way.

During recent moments of reflection, I grapple with this point: should I shave my new growth and resume my life with a bald head? A part of me sees shorn locks as a radical indictment of all the myths and fears accompanying a cancer diagnosis. I heartily reject the view that a woman’s worth somehow corelates to the length of her hair. As a Black woman, I know my head is an ideological fist thrust into the air — Wakanda as a political statement. On a more practical level, hairlessness also means no rollers, no trips to the beauty salon, no fear of rainy weather … a rather handysolution to myriad problems, as I see it.

Yet there are other considerations which are difficult to overlook. Maybe allowing my hair to regain its former length will help on-lookers understand that cancer does not have to rob you of every vestige of life before the errant cells went awry. While my millennial young’uns accept and champion my baldness (they tend to support any and all forms of political rebellion that challenge the Establishment), my husband prefers my longer hair style. And my beloved church hats fit better when I have hair as an anchor. 

I have not determined a final resolution. For now, I will permit long-dormant follicles to have their way. If Christmas finds a well-coifed Afro as my crown, so be it (after all, I came of age in the 1970s). Or I might take a razor to it all and be done with it.

Either way, no hairstyle can truly reveal to this world the nature of this journey I have made, the twists and turns leading to my current path. I will continue to tell my story to all and sundry, shining a light to illuminate any darkness ahead.

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