The words, “You have cancer” bring on lots of different emotions…from fear to anxiety, from worry to dread. It’s a lot for our hearts and minds to process. The horror stories, the success stories, stories of strength and courage, stories of sadness and desperation, all of them are different, none are the same. Mostly what we know about cancer and what we associate with cancer are what we see. The visual components of this diagnosis are the ones that hit us first. The weight loss, the dark circles, the puffed up face, and of course the bald head.
As a woman, that visual appearance, being “beautiful” and what we perceive as pretty, is what scared me the most. My initial thoughts and questions, even to my oncologist, were about losing my hair. Learning what I know now and looking back at my journey, I can’t help but think how silly those initial thoughts were. How much energy and time I spent on the thought of being bald. I didn’t want to feel ugly, I didn’t want my husband to see me so vulnerable and so raw. I didn’t want my kids to witness the woman they have in their life as bald and weak. A part of me felt being bald would take a piece of my femininity away. I would no longer have hair to style, hair to tie up, hair to wash, hair to cover my neck, to make me feel spectacular.
I remember countless conversations with friends and family surrounding my hair or rather the lack of hair I would have. I felt that if I talked about it I would prepare everyone for what they would see and what I would see every morning. Of course there was a slight chance I wouldn’t lose my hair. I began googling and looking on Pinterest for ways to protect my delicate head of hair. I tried baby shampoo, washing my hair once a week, essential oil sprays, anything I could find that was accessible and reasonable, to help save the hair I had. I prayed and I hoped it wouldn’t fall out. It then all happened rather quickly, I thought. Hair on my pillow, hair on my shirt, lots of hair in the shower. It was inevitable, my hair would eventually fall out. I had to face this next part of my reality. I continued looking for ways to prolong the process and save what I could. Finally, I decided to cut my hair, thinking a pixie cut would give my hair some room to breathe. I read that this would ease the shock of all the hair I would find falling out if it was long. So here I was, making an appointment to chop it all off. Looking for pictures of how I wanted it to look. Taking advice from my cousin, across the sea in Italy, about my haircut and what style to go for. The countless messages and pictures we sent each other helped to ease some of my fear and created an excitement for my new look.
I made my appointment, a new salon, a new hairdresser, a new start. My future sister-in-law’s cousin was willing to make this process painless and fun. Of course I couldn’t go alone, so I took my life long bestie along for the ride. Together we had an amazing cup of coffee to commence the moment and off we were, heading towards the first step of the next part of my journey. I chopped my hair off that day, with my bestie by my side and my new hairdresser and friend, taking pictures and laughing through it. At the end, guess what, I LOVED it!!!! I felt modern, cute and feminine.
I cut my hair one more time, a different hairdresser at the same salon, another friend, before taking that buzzer and shaving it off. I tried so hard to save what I could but I needed to face reality, it was inevitable but it would all be ok.
The night I shaved my head I didn’t want my boys around. I didn’t want to do this with them watching. I wanted them to see me strong and courageous, not weak and sad. My friend took them for me and my husband got out his buzzer. Here was the moment I dreaded and honestly it was not as bad as I envisioned. I leaned over our bathroom sink and he went to work. I can’t imagine the strength and courage my husband needed in that moment to shave his wife’s head. I never even thought what this would mean to him and how he would get through it. I only thought of myself and what I was feeling. I remember the fear he had that night: he was nervous, anxious, trying to get through it as quickly as possible and not wanting me to see what he saw in the mirror. I looked up briefly though, I looked into the mirror, tears welled in my eyes and I momentarily saw my grandmother’s face in that mirror. I said out loud, “I look just like my grandma.” Then I remember pushing those tears aside and I began to laugh. I laughed my way through the rest of it. My husband was in disbelief that I could laugh at that moment. He continued his task and did the best job ever. I had a perfectly round, shiny, and very cold head. I saw a birthmark I never knew I had, at the back of my neck, which made me smile. My son has the same birthmark on his right temple.
The doorbell rang and my kids walked in with my friend at the door. I kept my hood on but I knew everyone was curious so I let it fall. I remember my friend saying it didn’t look bad and I remember the shocked look on my little ones’ face, the smile on my older son’s face. They said, “You look good” and proceeded to feel my head. That was it, the moment was over. They amazed me. They moved on from there and didn’t care. I was their mom, bald or not, that was it, that was what mattered. My strong and courageous boys showed me it was all ok.
My first outing as a newly bald woman was Halloween. We have a tradition at a friend’s house, a bunch of us have pizza and trick or treat in her neighborhood. I decided I would be a pirate and wore my head scarf and silver hoops. We took pictures and we headed out. I was so nervous, but for what I can’t remember. It must’ve been the embarrassment I thought I would feel, which I did, but kids are so much smarter than we are. My son’s friend came over, a sweet little girl, and told me I looked like a Wakanda Warrior. That was it, happy tears filled my eyes and I swallowed them down and the night moved on. The moment I feared was over, everyone noticed and that one little comment gave me courage. I was a Warrior.
Having a bald head did not define my journey with cancer, as I thought it would. It did not make me less feminine, it did not make me ugly, as I thought. Being bald gave me courage, gave me strength and made me brave. I realized something new about myself, what I so desperately wanted and needed was to put on some red lipstick and dance the night away with my bald head in all it’s shiny glory, which I actually did later in my journey. My biggest fear became my biggest strength. I was a badass, I was beautiful with or without my scarves. Being bald was a brand new start. I shed who I was the night we shaved my head and am moving onto who I want to be. As my hair grows in I am also growing into the woman I want to be, a woman I can admire. I used to walk around with makeup on at all times, not a full face but always foundation, always a tiny mask. My bald head was the beginning. I now walk around with no makeup, a completely nude face and I love it. I save makeup for those special occasions. I feel more confident in who I am and how I look. I’ve loved every part of my baldness, from the shiny head, to the stubble growing in, to the current curls I’m embracing. It’s been a huge, defining part of this journey and I am grateful for it. Having no hair has taught me so much about who I am and why I care so much. I now know I am beautiful both inside and out. Of course there are still those days when I am so hard on my looks, if only my eyebrows grew thicker, if only I had more hair on the right side of my head, if only my hair grew in straight, if only I didn’t gain so much weight. I then think, why care? I’m me, I’m beautiful. I miss my bald head, I miss wearing my headscarves but I move forward with a love for who I’m growing into with my new full head of very curly, brown and white, short (for now) hair.
By Matilda Portanova