Once I had this blog up and running, I spent some time fleshing out the peripherals and racking up a pretty sweet blogroll. There are quite a few sassy cancer babes out there and some of them are terrific writers, too. It’s startling/depressing/comforting to discover that one or two of them seem to be living lives that are parallel to my own: young kids, solid marriage, suburban poster children, fighting like hell, still putting on makeup. Naming their wigs.
I don’t want to seem like I’m shamelessly trolling for readership, but the reason I started blogging in the first place (aside from a little ego-stroking) was to link up fierce cancer babes all over and build some support, outside of the established cancer communities, for keeping sane and surviving with your personality and sense of humor in tact. So I started dropping some comments on the blogs that really hit home – experiences I could relate to, really poignantly aching displays of honesty, hysterical tales of mishaps and chemo-induced forgetfulness. And one of the babes who read my comments and wrote back was My Name Is Not Cancer Girl, who’s knocking BC on its butt in the ATL while taking care of her family. And naming her wig. Now we read each other’s blogs and offer support and wiseacre commentary, just like I had hoped.
Last weekend I got an email from an old school friend (thank you, facebook) who wanted to introduce to me a dear friend of hers who’s fighting cancer, with a new bone metastasis, in Atlanta. I wrote back to say that I’m always happy (well, you know what I mean) to meet a new cancer chick and share tips, gripes, horror stories, etc. As I was writing the body of the email, I had a little tickle in the back of my brain… “Is there any chance she blogs? I asked. Bet you can’t guess the answer.
Karma? Coincidence? What do you think?
As I’ve said before, baldness didn’t scare me this time around. I’d been through it before, had a DYNAMITE wig, loved the ease with which my morning routine rolled along, and relished the break from shaving, plucking, zits, etc. (Yes, the shiny-face-in-photographs thing was annoying, yes, sweating off my eyebrows six times a day was tedious, but they all beat being dead.) But as a (prematurely) post-menopausal female rapidly approaching the big 4-0, I could use all the feminine beauty mojo I can get. Baldness, and the subsequent Death-Valley-Ultramarathon that is growing out curly hair, eventually loses its silver lining and gets just plain cloudy.
So watching these twenty-something robo-babes and their semi-professional hair-flipping contests is starting to bum me out. Maybe it’s because I still think of myself as looking like them (at least in the respect that we’re both female) and when I catch sight of myself in the mirror I look SO unlike that now that it’s shocking, even more so than seeing my formerly Yul-Brynner self after a shower. I think of myself as having hair now, and this? Is so not it.
I think we need a Bald Channel. The King And I; the Star Trek with the bald chick in it; G.I. Jane; Shaft; the Natalie Portman movie where they shave her head; Kojak reruns. Ernie and Bert marathons. There could be made-for-tv movies about alopecia so chemo patients could understand that they’re not alone in the world, starring LeeAnn Rimes. Cancer patients all over the country would flock to the advertisers: moisturizers, wigs, great hats, Sephora tutorials on eyebrow and eyelash application.
Oh, great, like I don’t have enough projects already.
Trader Joe’s was pretty crowded for 7:00 on a Friday night (I know, I’m a real social butterfly), and I pulled my hat off when I walked in the door. (The fur-lined aviator hat is warm, but a little goofy.) Since my hair has gotten longer, it’s really itchy to wear my wig, so although it looks awesome, I’ve started going out without it. My hair is reeeeeeeally short, and it’s still pretty obvious that I’m growing it back from nothing; at Target today it got a lot of curious looks. I was a little self-conscious about it, but what the heck. My head is cute, my makeup is good, I’m rocking it. So people were doing double-takes tonight as they caught sight of my close crop. (I’m learning to live with the attention.)
Down at the end of the fresh foods aisle, a solidly-built gentleman was looking at cheese. Salt-and-pepper hair, Henry Rollins build, basket of groceries, and a kilt. With a sporran. And knee socks with the little ribbons. Big black brogues, a vest, and a bow tie. Awesome. He had a furrowed brow, as if he couldn’t remember what he was there to buy, or couldn’t find the right aisle for it. He looked very serious, and although I tried to catch his eye to smile, he was focused on his task.
I finished my shopping, checked out, and as I was pushing my cart out of the store, I noticed him walking across the front toward the register I had just left. I decided to take a chance that he had a sense of humor under that fierce demeanor, and as I rolled past him, I leaned over and said, “I’m glad you’re here – I thought I was going to be the one who got the most stares tonight.”
His face lit up and brightened from the center outward, revealing a radiant smile and twinkling blue eyes. He laughed as I rolled out to the parking lot.
Sleeping in. Someone else roasting the turkey. Modern pharmaceuticals. Muscle tone. Indian summer. Indoor plumbing. Unconditional love. Friends. Good friends. Friends who sit with you during chemo. Friends who send cards. Friends who send gifts. Friends who send couture. Shiraz.
Dogs. Cats. Saturday morning pancakes. Cashmere. Down comforters. October. May. The blindness of true love. Coldplay. Homemade pizza. Having enough energy to cook really good food. Christmas. The way my kids smell. Yoga. Naps. Clothes hot from the dryer. Parking in the garage. A clean house. Date night. Toddler giggles. The Bristol Lounge. A capella boys’ choirs. The internet. Diet Coke. Jude Law.
Second chances. Third chances. Seventh chances. Tireless medical researchers. A sense of humor. A great-shaped skull. Discount retailers. Shoe shopping. Walking in the woods. Every day. Netflix. Hot showers. Maho Bay. French fries. Really good wigs. Sunbathing. A good book. Or six. Freshly painted toenails. Comfortable high heels. Hugs.
Family. Family. Family. Family. Family. Gumption. Self-confidence. A good cry. Qualified therapists. A sympathetic ear. Backup. Permission to fail. Not wanting to.
Aside from the insulative value that having your own hair adds to a winter’s day, it’s an amazing mental hurdle to feeling normal. Last spring, when I was going through chemo, the stuff I was on didn’t make all of my hair fall out; in fact, I only lost about half of my volume (which I can assure you is enough hair for any three other people). To the average observer, all systems were nominal.
This summer, when my hair started falling out in earnest (thanks, Taxol!), I was expecting it. I was even, in a small part of me, looking forward to it – quick showers, no salon appointments, no shaving, cooler summer days. And yet as blase as I can be about some of the stuff that happens with this battle, there’s something so unnerving about being bald. Oh, I know I have a cute head, that my wig is fabulous and I don’t even mind going around in a bandanna. But all of a sudden, the world looks at you differently. You’re a cancer patient, and everyone can tell.
Why does that bother me? I should be proud to represent, a survivor who’s still plugging along through the soccer mom’s routine: walking the dog, going to Target, meeting the school bus. Does it make me uncomfortable to get special dispensation — no, please, go ahead of me in line, I insist — or to accept help to the car with my groceries? Lord knows, there are days I can use it. Is that why I want my wig to look so natural? (Or am I just really vain?)
Do I worry about making other people uncomfortable? I’m more than happy to talk about my illness, diagnosis, symptoms, not only because I hope I can help someone else who may also be sick but because, really, who doesn’t like talking about themselves. Once people know you’re sick, though, they make sure to always ask you how you are, if there’s anything they can do for you, and I think I’m very conscious of that switch — I’m not just your average girl any more. I want people to want to know how I am not because they know I’m sick and are being solicitous of the poor cancer lady, but because that’s what you ask your friends. (And yes, I know that’s ridiculous; I know who my friends are and that they love me. This is not an entirely rational process, kids.)
It’s been so hard to teach myself to accept help from those who offer it, not just because I need the help but because it gives those who offer it a way to have some control over an uncontrollable situation. Offering help is a way to make it better, even if it’s only a casserole. So maybe passing for “normal” is another way I need to let go, be the best baldy I can be. Or maybe I’ll keep fighting to look ”normal” because looking good, for me, has so much to do with feeling good.
Anyway, thanks for the casseroles.
It’s amazing how much of a woman’s identity is wrapped up in her hair. Even if it’s terrible hair, it’s still a defining characteristic. Can you imagine trying to describe someone without being able to talk about their hair? “She’s about my height, and she has lips and ears, brown eyes. You know who I’m talking about, right?”
When I’m bald, I could be anyone, any ethnic derivation, any age. First thing in the morning, in my bathroom mirror, I could be a hundred-year-old Chinese man. Late at night, in a dark room, maybe a little Yul Brynner around the eyes. Now that it’s growing in a wee bit, possibly sort of Sinead O’Connor, sans sunglasses. (Although I was hoping for G.I. Jane.)
But of all the things I’ve lost to cancer, I miss my eyelashes the most. Eyebrows can be penciled on; a good wig can fool most people into thinking I have hair. But you just can’t fake eyelashes. Even though dark lines of kohl on top and bottom lids come close, they lack the softness of a fringe of actual hairs. And have you ever tried a full line of artificial lashes? It looks like leggy caterpillars have parked on your eyelids. ::shudder::
The really odd part (I know, like there needs to be another one?) of being hairless is how you look in photographs. Even if your makeup and “hair” are perfect, there’s a shiny reflectiveness to your skin that the flash creates that strikes me as the real tell-tale of a chemo patient. Because your skin has lost all its hair, including the downy little hairs that cover the skin all over your body, especially your face, the naked skin looks greasy and plastic in pictures. No one warned me about that part: no matter how deft your hand at decoy, the picture tells a thousand words about what’s going on inside.
So now that the lashes/peach fuzz/brows are growing back (yea, shaving!), it’s so much easier to look like a girl. Don’t miss my curls yet, as my wig is so fabulous. But it’s such a delight to have lashes again. Keep your eyes peeled for excessive eyelid batting.