Ten days after the first dose of chemotherapy, it starts coming out. It is New Year’s Eve and I am in the shower washing my hair, getting ready for the night ahead and although I am expecting it to happen, I am not quite ready for the shock of chunks of hair coming away in my hands as I shampoo.
It’s not about vanity, but about holding onto my identity, my normality, my sense of who I am. In the past my hair had always been the bane of my life and I waged daily battles with it- it was too fine, too flyaway, and too ordinary but ah! I didn’t know the beauty of ordinary then…
I was 34 years of age when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had already undergone surgery to remove the tumor. Now I was facing six months of grueling chemotherapy as the new year was just beginning.
It is easier to mourn the loss of hair in one sharp shock than to do it on a daily basis. A fact I wish I had realized at the time with my rapidly diminishing sparse hairs hanging on for dear life. I am like a shaggy dog shedding hair everywhere I go. I leave a trail behind me – on the floor, my clothes, cushions – the pillows when I wake up in the morning are covered and it is in my mouth. Who knew I had so much hair? Then three weeks later it is almost all gone, except for a few random wispy clumps. I stand in front of the mirror and see… my grandfather staring back at me, an old man, with graying skin and wispy bits of hair clinging on valiantly to my bald head.
I decide to buy a wig – something I had been determined I didn’t need but now I want one. I know what I want and I won’t be put off my task of finding the longest, blondest, most fabulous wig I can find. The shop assistant keeps asking me what my hair had been like before and assuring me I could get a wig to match it and no one would know the difference. Well what’s the point in that I thought! As I already said my hair was nothing remarkable to begin with and now here was the perfect opportunity to be different. I look through the rows of expressionless mannequin heads – at straight, curled, long, short, blacks, reds, browns until I find it ….the long blonde hair I had been hoping for. It looks fantastic and I feel transformed as I buy it and wear it out of the shop, like a new pair of shoes.
I know many women wear their wigs every day throughout their treatment, but I decide to keep mine for special occasions– it is like an alter ego. The fact that it is the winter months means I can wear a terrific furry hat when I go out – very Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago! And after a few embarrassing mishaps, I quickly learn the subtle art of removing a hat without taking the hair underneath with it.
I can’t imagine wearing my wig in the summer months though because wigs are so incredibly hot, a fact I discover in the overheated shops when I often have to give in and pop to the bathroom for some relief. My public lavatory routine now includes hanging my wig on the hook of the toilet door, giving it a good brush out, and giving my itchy scalp a good scratch, before facing the world again.
The winter months pass slowly, each month punctuated by a round of chemotherapy which leaves me sick and exhausted. Then at last…at last…my final session of chemo is behind me, and my hair begins achingly slowly to grow back.
I check its progress each day and then one day I abandon the protective scarf and face the world with my newly sprouted short crop of hair. It feels incredibly liberating and a sign of healing and of growth. I go for walks and gaze in wonder at the tiny buds bursting from bare tree branches. I am cheered by the sunshiny golden gorgeousness of the daffodils in my garden. I marvel at the fact that they bloom each year faithfully, right where they are planted. They sleep in the frozen, hard ground of winter, their beauty hidden from our sight until the first signs of spring, then delighting us with their emergence.
I cannot help comparing my cancer treatment to the seasons - diagnosed in autumn, as the days were darkening; beginning chemotherapy in the darkest days of winter, shedding my hair like the leaves from the trees in autumn; my newly sprouted hair emerging with the first signs of spring; and in the sunshine of summer, all treatment finished and the all-clear given. I have always found it a powerful and comforting image to hold onto. So when I look around me at all the beautiful harbingers of spring each year, I see symbols of joy, renewal, rebirth and above all hope. I think of the hope-filled words of writer, Sarah Ban Breathnach: “ Expect to have hope rekindled. Expect your prayers to be answered in wondrous ways. The dry seasons in life do not last. The spring rains will come again”. My wish for you today if you are reading this in the bleak dark winter of illness, grief or despair, hold onto this image and know that you too will experience the healing spring rains in your life too.