Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
Hair loss, a common side effect of some chemo drugs, affects us all in different ways. Yet when hair grows back differently, it becomes a reminder of the changes that come with a diagnosis of cancer.
Recently I participated in a Facebook "Ten Years" challenge. "Lost about 3/4 of my hair after it came back after chemo and my biological drug," I wrote, "but it all saved my life." Instead of posting two photographs ten years apart, though, I posted three. Without the photograph of me bald in the middle, the others would have lacked perspective.
Although my hair was my one vanity, I was a patient bald person. Hair grows back, usually. All the while I was bald, I wondered if my hair would come back curly or a different color. In reality, it came back a little wavy, as before, but with wispy and fine strands of hair. I never imagined I would end up with the wispy baby-fine hair of a young child. With cancer, my one vanity vanished. Or did it? With my new hair, perhaps the vanity just became a distraction.
While hair-shifting chemo is a great medical invention, it takes some adjustment to reconcile yourself to cancer's new normal. I will say that being bald was not a significant challenge. Losing hair was a rite of passage. I began that rite with a stylish bob that lasted a few weeks before hairs began falling out. Then I went in the bathroom and, using clippers I had bought to cut my mother's hair, cut all but an inch off. I was taking baby steps.
Standing in front of my students with my chic short haircut a day after they saw me with my stylish bob a month after I cut off my long hair, I realized that even the chic haircut was temporary. Hairs fell here. Hairs fell there. I worried about my computer keyboard. That night, I shaved my head in the nick of time.
While I was prepared for losing my hair, I did not realize that the process would be painful as hair follicles died. If I had still had hair, I would have pulled it out trying to get relief. The pain passed, I donned a scarf and life went on. Having worn scarves for so long in the Seventies, when I was more bohemian than chic, scarves were an easy transition. I had some beautiful scarves that I wore for many months.
I stopped wearing scarves after I had finished with the TCH regimen and radiation but was still in treatment with Herceptin. It was summer. A friend and I were going for a walk after a wedding in a quaint little town. Wearing a colorful but hot cotton hat, I complained about the heat. "Take the hat off!" my friend said. Her advice was liberating. I took off the hat. After that, being nearly bald with no scarf or hat as new hair strands emerged made me feel healthier.
Ever since my hair has grown back it feels as if I am still growing it back. After almost ten years, I am still working out my relationship with this new normal. Some of the hairs will not grow very long. They are wisps. Others grow, up to a point, and stop. Once I coaxed my thinner hair to my shoulders. But each time my hair gets past my shoulders, I am reminded of how little there is.
The truth is that at the time of diagnosis, I had the goal of waist-length hair. I was making progress. My ponytail was, in fact, long enough to go to Locks of Love. Now I am learning to like a bob rather than trying to grow my hair to my waist, which means getting haircuts. One reason I prefer long hair is I do not savor haircuts. Each one is always different. Learning to communicate with a stylist is thus a challenge. While I have experimented with cutting my own hair, let’s just say my talents lie elsewhere.
Hair is just hair, I remind myself, and losing mine during life-extending treatments was not traumatic. Why should the way it grew back be? Over time, I am learning to recognize the woman in the mirror with the baby-fine hair. It fascinates me that I feel perfectly at ease in a body with one breast yet fret over something as insignificant (in the big picture of things) as hair. Missing my former hair, I think when I psychoanalyze myself, is a safe way to say I miss life before cancer.