I held out my hands and watched as the warm water rinse away the long hair that clung between my fingers and wrapped around my hands and wrists. I ran my hands through hair and rinsed away the hair again. And again. And again. It was time.
My oncology nurse had prepared me for this moment. “I will bet my last paycheck you will lose your hair”, he said. “Make sure you procure protection for your head from the cold and sun.” That was good advice. Hair is surprisingly practical. But his advice to avoid sunburn didn’t touch my worst fears. My hair was soft and fine and honey-blonde. Now that beautiful hair would be gone and replaced by the scarves and hats that are a symbol of sickness. My bald head would scream “CANCER” like a neon sign, flashing “sick person, right here”. Strangers would look at me and see a disease. But I wasn’t a diseased sick person. I was healthy and strong and fit and capable and attractive. At least I was until this breast cancer came out of nowhere. I hated the idea of the world seeing anything else.
A request to my friends yielded a cascade of gift certificates and hats and scarves. A trip to the wig shop became an adventure as we tried on dozens of wigs. And as we laughed and experimented it occurred to me that I could become anyone I wanted. Perhaps a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe? Or sexy wavy long auburn locks? Or short and curly brunette? Eventually I decided to become a redhead during cancer. I had always liked red hair. So why not try it out now?
By the time my hair rained down in the shower that morning, my arsenal of head protection was ready. My boyfriend requested the job of shaving my head. He had been hauling borrowed clippers back and forth to my house for days — on call for the big day. So I went to him that morning after unstopping the shower drain and simply said, “It’s time.” We set up a chair and a mirror and went to work, shaving an interim mohawk and taking photos of the temporary punk rock alter-ego who appeared smiling back in the mirror. And by shaving my head he did more than save a trip to the hair salon. He gently transformed the fear of lost beauty into an embrace and acceptance.
Yet despite the preparations, I found much of the carefully procured head protection stayed unworn in the closet. I never touched the sassy red wig again — not even for the novelty of experiencing the world a redhead. I only wore the hats and scarves for their most practical purpose, which was to physically protect my head from the cold and the sun, just as my nurse advised. Somehow in all the preparations and the outpouring of support, I found I didn’t need to hide behind my hair anymore. Instead I went bare-headed … bald scalp shining … in my home or out with friends or anytime when head protection became hot or itchy or uncomfortable. I wore hats or scarves when they suited me, and never to hide behind them. I wore a black bandana printed with skulls and crossbones to yoga class, secretly loving the sideways glances from people too polite to ask. I pulled off my hat in work meetings as my way of warning colleagues not count me out and to show that that I was still a player in this professional game, cancer or not. I learned to accept the knowing smiles from women and men who did a double-take at the grocery store, then offered a smile that reached their eyes, an acknowledgement that they knew and understood. Eventually I struck up a lengthy conversation with a young hipster and when I explained I had cancer, his mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. I realized from his shocked look that he really had no idea I was even sick. He thought my bald head was just another hipster hairstyle, unremarkable in urban Seattle.
I finally realized that while my illness was screamingly obvious to me, the rest of the world rarely noticed. Most people see what they want to see. Most simply accept whatever you choose to present. And fundamentally, the bald head can mean whatever we make it mean both to ourselves and to others. Friends and loved ones will walk with you and love you and support you bald, redheaded or wearing a skull-covered bandana. And while the hair eventually came back, those lessons of love and loyalty and self never left.
Leigh Pate lives and works in Seattle. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.