Sifting

CURE, Spring 2011, Volume 10, Issue 1

Reflecting on hair loss as a gift.

When I woke up this morning, I brushed my teeth, pulled on a sweatshirt and headed to the front porch. Standing there in my slippers, I tipped my head a bit over the side railing and raked my fingers through my hair.

Strand after strand of short brown and white hair drifted like feathery spines onto the holly bush beside the porch. The early spring birds twittered. The crocuses were out, but I was a tree in late autumn, releasing my leaves to the North Wind.

From the corner of my eye, I could see early commuters walking down the sidewalk, chatting while gripping their coffee cups. The leafy branches below the front porch held my hair like a thatch of wispy straw.

On and on I ran my fingers through, unleashing the hair that had given up its fight to stay on my head another hour, another day, another two days until my next dose of chemo.

“You have the perfect face for short hair,” say friends and relatives. “You’re lucky; you look great in hats,” they say. “Will you do scarves or a wig?” they ask. They pause. “How are you doing?”

A week ago, I had a ponytail. That part of me is already en route to its own new life. I’d gone to Fran, my hairdresser and a cancer survivor herself, for a pre-emptive haircut following my first chemo.

“Is my hair long enough to go to a good cause?” I had asked.

“I think so,” she’d said happily, as she secured my shoulder-length hair with a plastic band like a garbage-bag closure.

Snip. Fran stood there holding my ponytail, oddly separated from my body, like a pelt. It will end up in the hands of Locks of Love.

“Hair this fine, they use to knit caps for babies,” Fran told me. My remaining hair flopped into a surprisingly attractive angled bob.

Fran went back to business, cutting another level and creating an ear-length cut I absolutely loved. It was sassy, stylish, lively.

“I want this when my hair grows out,” I said.

“You can’t,” Fran answered. “Your hair is going to be curly and sticking out sideways when it comes back.”

Strand after strand of short brown and white hair drifted like feathery spines onto the holly bush beside the porch. The early spring birds twittered.

By coincidence, my friend Randi from Eugene was in town, and she’d met me at the salon for the occasion. I asked her to take a picture; I wanted to preserve this fleeting moment of a self I couldn’t have.

Fran cut one level higher, a boy cut around my ears, cropped tightly at the neck and a little length on the top. Then she stepped away to fetch the special-duty clippers that would finish the job, taking my hair down to a half-inch.

Fran didn’t want me to endure the indignity she had nearly 20 years ago, a couple of weeks after her first round of chemo. Walking into a supermarket with her young daughter, a thick chunk of Fran’s long blonde hair suddenly fell out, landing on her back.

“Hey lady,” a woman had called out to her, “your hairpiece fell off.” The passerby had mistaken Fran’s clump of lost hair as a bobby pin malfunction. Years later, when Fran tangled with cancer a second time, she knew what to do. She asked a hairdresser friend to shave her head.

But as I looked in the mirror, I felt a tug. I liked this Peter Pan cut. Couldn’t I hang onto this tiny slice of Neverland—for even a little while, until my hair started really going? Could I get off the train one stop short?

In an instant, the three of us agreed: Hold off a bit on the final clipping.

Fran smoothed in a dab of hair goop that gave multiple personalities to my liberated bangs and crown, enabling them to stand, sit, sweep. “Call me when you’re ready,” she said. “I’ll stay late or come in early.”

Raking my hair this balmy spring morning I wonder, am I ready? My hair seems to be, even if I am not.

It’s the cherry-red Adriamycin that is doing this. Adriamycin is also the reason I rinse my mouth out with baking soda and salt stirred in warm water. It is the reason I slick strawberry lip balm over my mouth, beating down a cold sore. It is the reason I take iron pills and naps, and immune-boosting Chinese mushrooms, and head to the bathroom way too much, and take care to wash my hands extra-well. It is the reason I have a yeast infection.

It is the reason, despite a bevy of anti-emetics 17 days ago, that I became so violently ill I needed to be wheeled into the hospital that night for I.V. fluids and a drip of yet another anti-nausea drug. I’m one of the extra-sensitive 5 percent. Next go-round, my apologetic oncologist said when he visited my bedside, he’ll split the Adriamycin in two half doses and save me from the awful side effects.

“We all hate Adriamycin,” he told me. “We keep hoping for something else. But in head-to-head studies, the Adriamycin always wins.”

And, I hope, the Adriamycin will help me win.

I am stage 1, node negative, but, at 48, young for breast cancer, with two school-age children who need me and a husband who’d like us to grow old together. It was a surprise to find the lump, to find it was malignant, to find I had much of a risk at all for the cancer metastasizing.

A combination of Adriamycin, Cytoxan and, later, five years of an anti-estrogen drug will cut in half the chances of the cancer returning. Adriamycin lobbed 1-1/2 percent more off my risk than the kinder, gentler chemo cocktail known as CMF would have.

I see that 1-1/2 percent as a person, and that person could be me.

The Adriamycin and Cytoxan are busily slaying any cancer cells left sifting around my system. So, perhaps, are all the prayers and positive energy heading my way. The other fast-dividing cells—my hair follicles, white blood cells, the lining of my mouth and intestines—are caught on the battlefield.

I can’t see the mutant cancer cells giving up the ghost. But I can see the hair on my head, unanchored, sifting onto the bushes.

“You’ll be beautiful no matter what,” my family and friends tell me. “It will grow back,” they say.

These same friends have brought roast chicken and potatoes, lasagna, chicken soup, stew, banana bread, unending bouquets of flowers, magazines, books, lemon drops, scented candles, crusty baguettes, fancy soaps, soft pajamas, even a bright yellow cycling cap signed by Lance Armstrong. They bake brownies for the boys and whisk them to Trailblazer games. They balance my energy with Reiki, they pray, they send e-mails, cards, positive vibes and chocolates. They put my name—my family’s names—in their church, temple or synagogue’s book of intentions. They help with cleaning. They come for tea. Each day, I am stunned and comforted by the generosity, the affection, the continuing concern. The cancer has shown me a thick cocoon of caring I never could have imagined.

After all that shedding on the porch, I took my younger son to meet with his friends at the park. The parents luxuriated in the welcome late February sun and cooed over my new cut.

“It’s not going to last long,” I told them, and by way of proof, ran my fingers through, showing off the flotsam. If God indeed knows the number of hairs on our heads, I was keeping him on his toes. I scattered the handful of hair, saying, “Some bird may as well build a nest with it.”

The adults laugh. I liked that image, my hair, sacrificed for my health, finding new life with twigs and dryer lint, cradling speckled eggs.

It amazes me that I still have hair to speak of at all. That morning, I had bent repeatedly to rescue mats of hair from running down the drain in the shower. I towel dried, gingerly, and hair filled the sink. Trying to get ready to leave, I was diverted, again and again, by hair on the bathroom floor. I wiped it up with squares of toilet paper dampened with water. When I lightly ran the blow dryer over my head, yet more hair fell to the tiles. I brushed the dry strands into piles and pinched them up with my fingers.

“You should see how much hair I’m losing!” I yelled to my kids downstairs.

“It’s OK,” 13-year-old Douglas calmly called up. Thomas, 7, whose heart is heavy with the why of all this, walked into the room and silently wrapped his arms around me.

I will survive.